Linux unites

Ten years ago the only Linus most people knew toted a blue blanket from

panel to panel in the Peanuts comic strip.

Today however, if you work in IT you probably know another one – Linus Torvalds the Finnish computer science student who turned Minix, a popular classroom teaching tool, into the Unix variant Linux. Whether you say “lee-nooks,” “line-ucks” or “lin-ucks,” the kernel of this hybrid OS has grown to include 250-plus flavours and legions of passionate users.

And just in case anyone has spent the last decade wandering in the IT desert, it is Linux’s free distribution model that has helped launch it outside IT circles and onto the radar screens of business types. On the flip side, however, this communal approach has also been a barrier to widespread Linux acceptance in blue-suited enterprise IT environments.

Although the Linux kernel and many of its distributions are free, a whole industry of hardware, software and services has grown up around it. Companies such as Red Hat Inc. and MandrakeSoft give Linux’s often unruly flavours a shave, a haircut and a shrink wrap. And almost every major server vendor now has a line of Linux products. In fact, according to Dan Kusnetzky, a senior analyst at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, Linux has grabbed the attention of the majors because globally it has a 30 to 35 per cent compound growth rate, compared to about 10 per cent for Windows, and about one per cent for Unix.

Noting that Linux runs about 40 per cent of enterprise Web sites, including 1,200 IBM sites, Chris Pratt, manager of e-server strategic initiatives for IBM Canada Ltd. in Markham, Ont., said the OS has expanded well beyond its early constituency of academic institutions, R&D shops, geophysicists and other users who needed computing-intensive parallel processing.

As well as large volumes of distributed servers, Pratt said there are now many point-of-sale devices, airport check-in terminals, gasoline pumps and other embedded gadgets running Linux. “As you can imagine, if you are starting to deploy thousands of devices the low or non-existent licence costs behind Linux are very attractive.”

Although he mostly sees Linux in junior to mid-size organizations, Larry Karnis, president and senior consultant of Brampton, Ont.’s Application Enhancements Inc., said it appeals to companies that are more results-oriented than process-oriented. “In a lot of cases what happens is that IT people sneak Linux in the back door. They do that because they have a problem to be solved but they face shrinking budgets while at the same time vendors are more aggressively (policing) license usage.” Karnis said.

Linux-watchers agree that despite its success at running Web servers,

Linux in the enterprise remains a tactical solution. Its strength, they say, lies either in rapid, cheap rollouts in a mixed environment – where the IT manager with a tight budget needs a proxy server here and e-mail server there – and in consolidating workloads from smaller servers.

They also say that, name recognition aside, there are still a few common misperceptions slowing down wide-scale enterprise adoption.

gurus not needed

The biggest myth that Andrew Hutton wants to dispel is simply that Linux is a fringe operating system. Hutton, Ottawa-based president of Linux support firm SteamBalloon Inc. and a user since 1992, said that although Linux’s overall deployment looks low, when narrowed down to Web servers or embedded devices it’s quite high – it just hasn’t stuck on the desktop. Hutton also said that most Linux flavours vertical or niche products, so “there are only about three or four distributions you should be concerned with if you speak English.”

Although they recognize a learning curve with Linux, boosters also say that it is not as hard to use as it used to be. With GUI capabilities for setting up most of the popular services on the latest Red Hat, for example, you no longer have to be a command line Unix guru to make the pieces work, Karnis said.

Karnis also suggested that this rise of Linux management GUIs is extremely significant because it starts to encroach on the success that Microsoft achieved by eliminating the need for command line skills with its relatively easy-to-use Windows interfaces.

“Unix vendors have not kept up with Microsoft in terms of ease of management with GUIs, but Linux is breaking a bunch of new ground from a Unix perspective. So you’ll see more and more people who are used to administering machines from a GUI environment feeling comfortable with Linux,” he said.

Another commonly cited concern about Linux is that there are no business applications available, in part because it is difficult to develop on. However Hutton, who is also a board member of the Ottawa Canada Linux Users Group, said because Linux is open it allows the engineers involved to look over each other’s work. He also said that with many people tinkering with the source code it is constantly becoming simpler and more consolidated.

“This eliminates the decay problem with commercial software where the software gets so complex that the only people who have a reasonable idea of how it works are the people who were there from the beginning and eventually they leave,” Hutton said.

To kick-start development, the Scotts Valley, Calif.-based Borland International released a Linux tool, Kylix 1.0, in March 2001. With a two-way visual tool, code editors, a compiler and debugger,

Kylix allows developers to create native Linux code applications, hosted completely on the Linux platform, said Simon Thornhill, Borland’s vice-president and general manager for RAD solutions. Thornhill said Borland has shipped a million copies of Kylix primarily, they believe, to Windows users moving over to Linux.

Ransom Love, former president and CEO of Linux vendor Caldera International Inc., said that since Linux itself is somewhat fragmented, with some apps running on one platform and not another, it is difficult to deliver a Linux solution for all seasons.

However, in May 2002, Linux vendors Caldera, SuSE Linux AG, TurboLinux Inc., and Connectiva said they would collaborate to produce a unified Linux operating environment – UnitedLinux. It is designed to provide a single, common code base for Linux vendors to add their individual flavourings, making it easier for users to run applications across different Linux environments, Love said, now the Caldera executive in charge of UnitedLinux.

“One of the key challenges that you have to corporate acceptance of Linux is ISV (independent software vendor) support – they want to make sure their applications run. Combining our efforts into one single product, an ISV can now certify to one platform and deliver their product to a global market,” Love said.

Not surprisingly, Jim Elliot, IBM’s Canadian Linux advocate is also extremely supportive of UnitedLinux. “As a software developer, anything that simplifies (IBM’s) development, testing , etc. of applications – things like WebSpehere, DB2 – makes it a lot easier on us,” he said.

Mindful that passions run high among open-source sorcerers, Love said, “We’re not taking anything away from the Linux community. We have had four companies interfacing with the Linux community, now we are combining those resources into one. If you combine our four companies we have three of the top four Linux kernel engineers working on our product together.”

But the combined market reach of the four initial Linux distributors backing UnitedLinux will still be less than half that of the world’s leading Linux distributor Red Hat Inc., said IDC’s Kusnetzky. Such a size comparison is critical when taking into account that Red Hat, while invited to join, has chosen to watch the evolution of UnitedLinux from a distance for now.

But Kusnetzky said Red Hat has little reason to join the ranks of UnitedLinux, as the rules of open source dictate that Red Hat reaps the benefit of any advances to Linux made by UnitedLinux.

“Anything UnitedLinux does with open-source software is itself open-source software. Red Hat works close to the Linux community and monitors the developments and where the developments fit Red Hat’s market they incorporate them, add to them, and package them and sell them. So whatever this group does, Red Hat gets the benefit of anyway,” Kusnetzky said.

Furthermore, the impact of UnitedLinux will likely reach only as far as the combined market share of the founding distributors, which is less than 25 per cent of the total Linux market, Kusnetzky said. But at least the diversity of the individual Linux offerings from the initial four distributors, along with the different geographical regions they serve, should prevent any overlap of services, Kusnetzky said.

Since the operating systems that win are ultimately those that have the best support form third-party vendors, Karnis thinks the Linux community will prosper from more standardization. But he also has concerns about licensing constraints.

“The UnitedLinux folks are saying that they are going to make the source code available, but since they doing a lot of work to generate and package executables they are going to put their own licence restriction on them. So the source (code) will be free, but UnitedLinux will make you pay for the binaries, or possibly not redistribute them at all.”

“My concern is that as soon as you start putting restrictions on it you introduce the sort of onerous license-compliance issues that proprietary software users face. Over time what you may end up with is the commercialization of Linux which I think would be a bad thing,” Karnis said.

security and support

Since the kernel’s source code is freely available on the Web for anyone with the skills to muck around with it, many on the outside still believe Linux is less secure than other operating systems, said Elliot. In fact, he said, Linux benefits from a

Darwinian environment where only the fittest pieces of it survive, and the defenders can learn as much about the code as the intruders.

Love agreed that the number of eyeballs on Linux make it more responsive to threats and general fixes. “The question on security is how quickly you can respond. Here’s where open source becomes a tremendous advantage over any other proprietary source because you have so many people who are knowledgeable, and can respond so quickly, that patch can be almost instantaneous and thus delivered efficiently,” he said.

While Linux fanciers also maintain that the type of support offered by user groups is superior to commercial services, Karnis said that more conservative enterprises need access to large-scale corporate consulting services to feel comfortable.

“Since big companies like to buy their way out of problems they need to know that they have a big partner that they can rely on, and they are more than willing to pay for that partnership. IBM’s Global Services are probably one of the best place for big companies to go because IBM’s pushing (Linux) hard. But no top-tier Linux vendors have the kind of consulting business units that they would need to make big companies feel comfortable,” he said.

“That’s the downside,” agreed Bob Ling, a Vancouver-based medical researcher who relies on a Linux cluster for heavy duty number crunching. “You really need to have someone in-house who understands the guts of it, since there is hardly any consumer support. Either that, or you make friends with a smaller company or a guy from a user group,” he said.

what it means

In case anyone still thinks Linux is a fringe OS,

Pratt said that last year IBM spent US$1 billion globally on various Linux initiatives, with the same amount or more slated for this year and the next.

“The crystal ball says it’s not going away. The movement of openness is certainly one that’s gaining momentum and we’re seeing more and more mainstream customers,” Pratt said.

Since Linux got a lot of its early start running Web servers and intranets, growing use of the whole Internet as the platform for applications – or the Web services movement – will help drive Linux usage in the coming months, said Borland’s Thornhill.

“Whilst there isn’t an on/off switch, we are seeing a gradual acceptance that is helping to drive the adoption of Linux as large organizations take their Unix applications and migrate or connect them,” Thornhill said.

Though Microsoft’s new licensing scheme keeps popping up as the trigger for inquiries about Linux’s strategic possibilities, most experts say that Linux is still more of a character actor than a star. The key to making Linux work is picking a task for which it’s well-suited. However, they say, there is a snowball factor at work – the more people use Linux and find that it actually works, the more they will use it.

“Open source is not about free, it’s about freedom,” Karnis said. “That is, freedom to acquire, freedom to deploy and freedom to use without vendor restrictions. By granting business the freedom to use their machines the way they see fit, Linux is an extremely empowering tool.”