Computerworld

Big-business technologists talk up Linux

Several IT executives at the LinuxWorld Summit last week reinforced the idea that Linux now has the technical brawn and industry support to accommodate the most demanding business applications in environments such as finance, airline reservations and stock trading.

Speaking at the trade show, top technologists from Citigroup, Cendant Travel Distribution Services, E*Trade Financial and other companies shared their experiences with Linux in a corporate environment.

While the next full-scale LinuxWorld won't take place until August in San Francisco, the smaller, regional LinuxWorld Summit offered US East Coast IT professionals a chance to exchange best practices and learn about the latest open source technology. The show drew more than a dozen exhibitors, including IBM, Novell, Nokia and Sybase, and more than 300 IT executives, according to show organizers.

The promises of a succesful move to Linux -- greater speed and lower costs -- are what every technology-dependent business is after.

"We were a poster child for Sun," said Joshua Levine, CTO and operations officer at E*Trade Financial in New York. During the Internet boom, he said, E*Trade went on a rampant server consolidation project, moving to some of the largest Sun platforms. "We had done everything quote-unquote right from an Internet company standpoint."

But then the downturn came, and the firm needed to improve its margins.

"When you throw everything up on a white board, you notice the only technology pricing that's been in a deflationary spiral is around the Intel architecture," he said.

This led the firm to migrate its Unix applications to Linux to take advantage of lower-cost Intel hardware. A Unix-to-Linux port was viewed as a simpler jump than Unix-to-Windows. E*Trade built server platforms on Linux and Intel for about US$38,000 each that improved the performance of similar Sun systems, which cost the firm about US$250,000 per server.

Citigroup looked at Linux as a way to get more use out of its mainframe platform by running many Linux virtual servers on one IBM box. But before adopting Linux, the company spent months working out legal issues related to a move to open source, said Aaron Graves, vice president of technology at the New York firm. "It took us awhile to understand what a support contract for open source means. It was really a different model," he said.

Having the backing of vendors -- in Citigroup's case, IBM and SuSE -- was key for getting everyone on board with Linux, "as opposed to just working the raw open source code," he said.

For Cendant Travel Distribution Services, which handles back-end airfare calculations for sites such as Orbitz.com, Cheap Tickets.com and United Airlines, reliability was an issue when the company considered a move from mainframes to Unix, and ultimately Linux.

"You can say something is faster and cheaper, but if the system is not up, and you're losing business for every second it's down, no one really cares," said Robert Wiseman, CTO for Cendant Travel Distribution Services in New York.

When the firm was considering a Linux switch, the IT group and executive management had to deal with some scare tactics used by competing vendors. "We had vendors coming in and calling Linux freeware to scare our executives," he said.

After months of testing and work with hardware and software partners, Wiseman created a data center based on distributed dual-processor Intel/Linux servers, which run the company's compute-intensive, fare-calculation programs faster than previous mainframe or SMP Unix boxes.

He added that "our uptime [on Linux] has been equal" to the previous two platforms.