The Seven-Year Niche

Linux has gone mainstream sooner than some expected, and along the way has spawned a movement known as ''open source.'' Just how far can it go?
Bob ViolinoNovember 16, 2004

Anyone paying even the slightest attention to the fortunes of Linux, the “free” computer-operating system beloved by techies and intriguing to CFOs, has probably noticed that a new buzz phrase has entered the conversation. “Open source” has become a staple of computer-vendor press releases and technology-conference agendas, providing an umbrella term for Linux and a growing volume of non-Linux software that is now in the public domain and ready to be stitched into the fabric of computing infrastructures.

In the past year, vendors of many stripes have offered up once-proprietary software as eagerly as patrons once stood in line at Studio 54. Software dubbed “open source” is free to use, alter, and share, with no license fees per se, although if it is obtained via a for-profit company, support costs will likely enter in. Work continues apace on a variety of open-source efforts nearly as well known as Linux, such as the Apache Web server, the MySQL database, and the OpenOffice desktop suite. And Linux itself, still the linchpin of this movement, continues to carve an ever-widening space in Corporate America, to the point where Dan Kusnetzky, vice president, system software, at research firm IDC, acknowledges, “We published a projection in 1997 that Linux would show up as a mainstream [operating system] choice in all vertical markets around the world by the end of 2005. Our projection may have been too pessimistic. Seven years later, it’s happened.”

According to figures compiled by IDC, 3.4 million Linux client operating systems were shipped in 2002, and that number is forecast to grow to more than 10 million by 2007. Gartner says shipments of Linux-based servers increased about 61.6 percent in the second quarter of this year compared with the same period last year. Those figures don’t include the substantial volume of free downloads that often give Linux its initial presence in corporate environments.

Drive Business Strategy and Growth

Drive Business Strategy and Growth

Learn how NetSuite Financial Management allows you to quickly and easily model what-if scenarios and generate reports.

More important than increased sales figures may be a growing perception that the time is right for Linux to move beyond pilot projects and relatively safe duty as the underlying software for fairly mundane tasks such as print and file services, and on to center stage as a key platform for a range of business needs.

“We evaluated Linux in 1999 and didn’t feel it was ready for prime time,” says Mike Jones, senior vice president and CIO at retailer Circuit City Stores in Richmond, Virginia. “It has come a long way since then, and our confidence has increased.” So much so, in fact, that Circuit City has launched a project to roll out Linux-based point-of-sale systems from IBM at its 600 nationwide retail outlets beginning in March. The strategy is part of a “revitalization effort” that will move its stores from customized, proprietary systems to software based on open standards, says Jones.

The growing popularity of Linux and other open-source software has grabbed the attention of leading IT vendors, which want to create open-source user communities that will help boost their revenues (or reduce their costs) by linking their commercial products and services to systems designed, at least in part, with open-source technologies. More than 70 percent of open-source development today is supported by vendors that offer commercial products that incorporate open-source software, in contrast to most people’s perception of a strictly grassroots movement, staffed on a part-time or best-effort basis, as open source was 5 to 10 years ago, says Bill Weinberg, architecture specialist at Open Source Development Labs, a Beaverton, Oregon, industry group that’s working to create open-source options for business. The OSDL also pays the salaries of key open- source developers, in particular Linus Torvalds and Andrew Morton.

Vendors on the Bandwagon

IBM, which garnered more than $2 billion in Linux-related revenue last year and is now putting Linux at the heart of many of its enterprise products, has made a slew of open-source announcements this year. In August the company expanded its Leaders for Linux program, which provides resources such as presales support, education, and technical support to partners — including recently signed Novell and Red Hat — that market and support Linux products on IBM platforms. At the same time, IBM announced that it is contributing more than half a million lines of relational database code to the Apache Software Foundation. IBM participates in and contributes to more than 150 open-source projects, including Linux, the Globus Alliance, Eclipse, and Apache, and has issued enough press releases on the subject to fill an enterprise-class database.

Not to be outdone, Hewlett-Packard, which had $2.5 billion in Linux-related revenue last year, has been introducing Linux options for select systems and says it now ships 100,000 desktop and notebook computers equipped with Linux each quarter. Earlier this year, it announced an agreement with Novell to certify and support the Novell SUSE Linux operating system on select HP Compaq client systems. In June HP signed agreements with MySQL and JBoss to certify, support, and jointly sell their open-source products on HP servers. The company also said it has expanded its Linux professional services team to 6,500 people.

Perhaps more notable, in August HP introduced what it claimed was the first preinstalled Linux notebook PC from a major hardware vendor. Linux is well established as a server operating system, but its viability on corporate desktops (and laptops) is a fiercely debated issue, particularly within the halls of Microsoft, which has found itself on the defensive as many competitors position Linux in direct opposition to Microsoft’s products.

Meanwhile, Sun Microsystems is sponsoring a long list of open-source projects and says it plans to release its Solaris operating system under an open-source license by the end of the year. And in August, Computer Associates International Inc. released its Ingres Enterprise Relational Database for Linux into the open-source community. CA says that marked the first time a major enterprise software vendor had collaborated directly with the open-source community to deliver enterprise database technology. That may be for the scholars to debate, as IBM’s database announcement preceded CA’s by one day.

As they knock one another over in an attempt to prove their allegiance to Linux, vendors do seem to be removing two often-voiced knocks against open source: questionable reliability and lack of customer support.

“One of the criticisms is that with open source, you’re on your own; you have to get help from newsgroups or second-tier companies [that lack] the stature of bigger vendors,” says Weinberg. “These larger sponsors are now putting Linux into their core strategy. The [justification] for using Linux in critical operations is on a par with other top-tier software solutions.”

Furthermore, Weinberg says, enterprises are developing internal expertise in Linux by refocusing people with Unix backgrounds, and there are many sources of support within the open-source community. Time and a critical mass of support have combined to make Linux more reliable, he says, in large part because of continuous improvements by the OSDL and the larger open-source community. This, and the cost savings from the absence of licensing fees, have enterprises taking greater notice of the open-source movement than ever before.

Open to Open Source

Aerospace manufacturer The Boeing Co., based in Chicago, had been following open-source developments for years before it began purchasing Linux-based servers about three years ago. Impressed with the performance of the operating system, about a year ago the company launched a policy to migrate from proprietary Unix servers to Linux-based machines for its IT infrastructure.

Boeing uses commercial versions of Linux, such as Red Hat’s, so it can get vendor support if any problems arise. As a result, the life-cycle support costs of the operating system aren’t much different from those of such Unix systems as Sun’s Solaris or HP’s HP-UX, says Vaho Rebassoo, director and chief architect, computing and network operation, at Boeing.

The main benefit, Rebassoo says, comes from not being locked into any one hardware vendor. “With Linux, the most compelling argument is that instead of buying hardware and software packages from Sun or HP, we can put Linux onto [any] Intel equipment,” which gives the company more flexibility in hardware selection and ultimately will lead to cost savings. Considering that Boeing has more than 7,000 servers, those savings can be considerable.

Rebassoo says it’s a myth that open-source software is unreliable. “That being said, we would have reservations about putting our most-complex [engineering and airplane design] applications on Linux,” he says. “But it will be only a matter of time before we move there.”

Another Linux devotee is the nearby Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the largest futures exchange in the United States. The exchange is gradually increasing its deployment of Linux and now runs 35 percent of its Unix servers on the open-source platform, using software from Red Hat. Its goal is to reach 40 percent by the end of the year and ultimately replace 100 percent of its Unix-based servers with machines that run Linux.

Chicago Mercantile will likely never run Linux on its most computing-intensive systems, such as the mainframe databases that store massive volumes of data, says CTO Charlie Troxel. But it has been pleased with how open source has performed at the server level.

Total cost of ownership was the initial goal of the exchange’s move to Linux. Troxel estimates that the Linux-based servers cost five to seven times less than the Solaris servers did before Sun lowered its pricing to close the gap somewhat. But Chicago Mercantile is also seeing performance increases compared with Unix, he says: “Performance of the Linux servers in some cases is 10 times better than on the servers we had been using. So for less money, we’re getting far better results.” In addition to the support it gets from Red Hat, Chicago Mercantile is retraining its Unix technical-support team for Linux.

For some newer technology vendors, putting Linux at the heart of their offerings allows them to go to market at a lower price point. InsiteOne Inc., a Wallingford, Connecticut, company that provides storage and archiving of digital medical images and other health-care data, has been an open-source user since it was founded in 1999. InsiteOne installs HP ProLiant servers at customer sites to run high-capacity imaging applications, and uses Linux on all those servers as well as in its data center. The databases that the company uses to store medical images are powered by MySQL.

InsiteOne placed a heavy bet on open-source platforms because it believed they would provide reliability and scalability — and they have, says David Cook, chairman and founder of the company. Another advantage is that Linux has become a positive selling point with clients. Cook recently met with a large government agency that is a prospective customer and is moving its entire IT infrastructure to Linux. “Because we’re on Linux, we got a check mark on that question on the application,” he says.

To be sure, there are still uncertainties when it comes to adopting open-source products in the enterprise. In addition to the trepidation that accompanies any technological change, a specific caveat to would-be users of Linux is the legal question that still dangles over the code. The lawsuits filed by SCO Group against a group of companies concerning portions of Linux that SCO claims infringe on part of its Unix operating system are still in progress. In August Open Source Risk Management Inc., a firm that provides insurance coverage against lawsuits involving patents and copyrights, published a report saying that 283 registered software patents could possibly figure into such lawsuits.

Concern about lawsuits “shows up in our surveys. But for the most part, it’s not stopping people from starting pilot projects and seeing how Linux would fit in their environment,” says IDC’s Kusnetzky. At this point, nothing seems to be stopping the move to open source and its greater role in the enterprise.

“I think it’s already on everyone’s road map in some sort of way,” says Gartner analyst Michael McLaughlin. “Companies have to be aware of the benefits. We’ve reached the point where deployment of [open source] for enterprise computing is very appropriate.”

Bob Violino is a freelance writer based in Massapequa Park, New York.

Setting the Standard

In September the Free Standards Group announced the availability of Linux Standard Base 2.0. The San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, which develops and promotes open-source software standards, says the standard is an essential component for the long-term market success of Linux. New features in the release include an application binary interface for C and support for 32- and 64-bit hardware architectures. The standard has the support of some of the biggest players in the Linux marketplace, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Dell, Novell, and Red Hat. The group says the broad support is significant because it will help keep Linux from diverging, as Unix systems did in the past. The standard is available now from the group’s Website, at

Dan Kusnetzky, vice president, system software, at IDC, says the effort shows that open-source software is gaining greater momentum in the business world. “The emergence of standards is an indication that something has become mainstream. Otherwise, why would anyone care?” he says. “The fact that the group has come up with this and has [leading] vendors signed up to support it is another major milestone toward Linux as an enterprise platform.”

Opening a New Frontier

The next triumph for open source may well be the corporate database. More than half a dozen options already exist, led by MySQL and PostgreSQL. Falling under the rubric of open-source databases, or OSDBs, these products are already finding their way into corporate use, sometimes for mission-critical applications. A recent report by AMR Research found that, while advanced functionality and scalability are still open questions, the performance and stability of leading OSDBs are deemed acceptable by many. The availability of commercial support contracts gives companies the confidence they need to embrace this new breed of database, and most current users of OSDBs expect them to equal commercial products in all key criteria within three years.

That doesn’t mean that the world will abandon the IBM, Oracle, and other commercial databases that currently provide a major portion of IT bedrock. As AMR notes, corporate inertia is a force to be reckoned with, even when new options cost less. More to the point, companies with terabytes of data won’t be happy to learn that the maximum capacity of OSDBs can be measured in gigabytes, moving business logic (“stored procedures”) to OSDBs is cumbersome, and decision-support and business-intelligence systems that rely on elaborate queries are not currently a good fit with OSDBs.

None of these problems is insurmountable, and, like Linux, OSDBs are constantly being refined to meet more-complex corporate needs. But for now, OSDBs tend to be harnessed to serve new systems rather than retrofitted to underpin existing applications. AMR notes that, on a per-CPU basis, the most expensive OSDB costs less than 4 percent of the most expensive traditional database ($1,500 versus $40,000), which certainly helps the ROI calculation. And OSDBs are seen as being simpler to administer. Software companies whose products rely on databases are interested in the growing success of OSDBs — money that customers don’t have to spend on the underlying technology should help drive sales of the applications that ride on top. But the catch is that many companies won’t aggressively pursue OSDBs until they see a suitable supply of compatible software. OSDBs remain a leading-edge technology, but AMR expects them to be mainstream within three years.

4 Powerful Communication Strategies for Your Next Board Meeting