LINUXWORLD: clicks with Linux

Aiming to highlight the perceived benefits of using Linux instead of Unix to power enterprise IT systems, Inc. Wednesday sent one of its top engineers to the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in San Francisco to describe how it has found savings by using the open source operating system.

The online retailer became one of the earliest high-profile examples of how Linux can help to reduce IT costs. It first made waves in late 2001 when it stated in a U.S. regulatory filing that it had saved US$17 million on its IT budget during the third quarter of 2001, mainly as a result of its migration to Linux. That equated to an approximately 25 per cent reduction of its IT expenses for the quarter, the company said at the time.

Jacob Levanon, the company’s director of systems engineering, walked through the technical changes made to capture those savings Wednesday during a presentation at the conference.

The most notable saving, he said, came from the new choice of hardware was able to acquire to run its revamped IT system. In place of relatively expensive RISC-based Unix servers, the company was able to turn to low-cost Intel Corp.-based hardware, he said.

“When you migrate to Linux you have incredible flexibility in hardware acquisition,” Levanon said. “You have one operating system and many hardware manufacturers that can take advantage of it.”

The company had been using a collection of Unix systems running, among others, Tru64 from Compaq Computer Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc.’s Solaris operating system. The systems drove the front-end of its e-commerce Web site, its middle-tier infrastructure and its backend data centre, where huge databases stored everything from the price of a George Foreman Grill to’s customer data.

“Frankly, it worked very, very well for us,” Levanon said.

However,’s trudge towards profitability coupled with the declining Internet economy led the company to search for ways to reduce its operating expenses. At the same time, it’s operations were growing and the company was beginning to roll out new Web-based services that required more computing horsepower.

“We realized that in that atmosphere we could not sustain our growth over time. We needed to find a much better solution,” he said. “Linux made sense to us.”

With backing from Hewlett-Packard Co. and Red Hat Inc., began migrating hundreds of servers to Linux. Faced with a self-imposed deadline of 120 days that would take the company to the start of the busy holiday shopping season, migrated 92 percent of its servers from Unix to Linux, leaving only its data centre servers unchanged.

As Levanon reminisced about the migration Wednesday, he noted that the move was not without challenges., which develops most of its software in house, had to move its applications from the 64-bit Unix platform to 32-bit Linux servers.

“Applications that were optimized in 64-bit had to be mapped to a completely new environment, and that was a challenge,” Levanon said.

With the majority of its Web and application servers now running Linux, Levanon said the company has the data centre in its sights. It will be a while, however, before Linux is running throughout it’s business, both Levanon and Red Hat said Wednesday.

“We are not prepared to stop here,” Levanon said. “Our goal is really to do an end-to-end migration to Linux.”

Linux in the data centre is uncharted territory for Red Hat. The Raleigh, N.C., company, which began shipping its high-octane Advanced Server software just three months ago, has only a few customers even evaluating the use of its software in the data centre, said Michael Tiemann, who joined Levanon during his presentation.

But it is a market that Red Hat is working to penetrate, and one that can bring even more savings to customers, he argued.

“Data centre machines are typically some of the most expensive machines, and the cost savings that are presented there are really quite large,” Tiemann said.