Running an open source operating system can be a wonderful thing for the systems administrator who wants the relationship without the marriage.

Open source pains

Running an open source operating system can be a wonderful thing for the systems administrator who wants the relationship without the marriage. But, like all good things in life, open source does not come without its share of challenges, and it can quickly turn management into mayhem.

Businesses running the open source Linux OS have found it a solid alternative to proprietary operating platforms. Due to its stability and reliability, Linux has gained popularity with ISPs as the OS for hosting Web servers. According to IDC, the Framingham, Mass.-based research firm, revenue from new licenses of the Linux OS is expected to grow from US$80 million to US$280 million in 2006.

However, according to Aberdeen Group, the benefits of Linux also contribute to its downside. Because the OS is open source – meaning that it is freely available for everyone to use without the lock-in of a proprietary vendor operating system – managing Linux can be an administrator’s nightmare.

“One of the differences between managing Linux-based systems versus Windows-based or Solaris or others is that there are a lot of software packages available that just about anybody can download from the Web,” said Bill Claybrook, research director for Linux and open source with Boston-based Aberdeen Group. “You don’t know the release cycles on them. They are all different and it is not truly co-ordinated by anyone in particular.”

Claybrook explained that with, for example Microsoft and Sun operating systems, upgrades and patches to the systems are controlled by the vendor and are typically released every 12 to 18 months. Upgrades to Linux software can literally be released more than twice daily.

Linux users also find themselves in another predicament, according to Claybrook, which is the result of having hundreds of common components and libraries shared across applications. The process of updating one application can lead to dependency conflicts that can actually break another application. For example, a systems administrator may have software package X running on Red Hat Inc. Linux. The next release of software X may have dependencies built in where it can only run with Red Hat Linux version 3.2, not 3.1. The bottom line spells out a lot of time and frustration for administrators.

Not surprisingly, until recently the lack of Linux software management solutions was frequently cited as one of the top reasons companies are hesitant to deploy Linux, according to Aberdeen. However, Claybrook added that several emerging Linux suppliers and large systems management companies have taken note of customer concerns and are focusing more effort to developing Linux management solutions.

“It has changed quite a bit,” he said. “There are a lot of tools around now that weren’t around a year ago.”

One such tool is the Red Carpet line from Boston-based Ximian Inc. According to the company, Red Carpet is an application and a service that allows users to specify which pieces of Linux-based software they want to monitor for updates. Red Carpet compares software already installed on end-user machines with the latest versions of the software hosted on Ximian servers.

“(Red Carpet) provides software management, installation, updating and software removal not only for Ximian software, but for the leading Linux distributions,” said Jon Perr, vice-president of marketing for Ximian. “You can think of it as a broadcast metaphor where an end user can check the Ximian channel and the Red Hat channel as well as others. When you tell the application to update, it will check our servers, see if any new packages are available and it will automatically take you through the installation process.”

Systems administrators can put their dependency fears at ease, Perr added, because Red Carpet will check for dependencies between software applications and make sure that all correct versions of these files are installed in the right places.

“It’s all about time savings and productivity,” he continued. “The process is automated and very intelligent. It’s all quick and easy and very painless.”

And free. Ximian Red Carpet service is accessible at no charge through the company’s Web site, www.ximian.com. For end users requiring a more rapid approach to software downloads and management, Ximian offers Red Carpet Express, where users pay a subscription fee and in turn get access to dedicated servers and dedicated bandwidth for faster updates.

For Red Hat Linux users, there is yet another option to deal with open source management dilemmas. The Raleigh, N.C.-based company offers Red Hat Network as part of its Red Hat Linux OS. According to the company, Network keeps a tally of all the systems that are registered with Red Hat and delivers appropriate updates as they become available.

“Red Hat Network takes input from the community at large, filters it down…and incorporates the proper changes and qualifications of those changes onto the appropriate release,” said Brian Faustyn, director of product management for Red Hat Network. “With each update, we give users information of what went into describing the problem, the solution and its impact on each system.”

According to Aberdeen, while many software management solutions are not limited to just Linux including Ximian Red Carpet, which is available on Sun’s Solaris and SCO Group’s Volution Manager, available on Solaris and also Microsoft Windows, Red Hat Network is only available for one Linux distribution and operating system – Red Hat Linux.

“The (tool) that is out there the most is Red Hat Network because Red Hat has about 60 or 70 per cent of the Linux market right now,” Claybrook said. However, he added that there are considerations that systems administrators should look for when selecting a Linux software management solution, one being integration capability with enterprise network and system management frameworks.

However, Ximian’s Perr disagreed with Claybrook’s recommendation. Admitting that this factor will become more important over time, Perr said think that one of the things to keep in mind with many Linux deployments on the desktop side is that the adoption “has been really grass-roots.…In many cases [Linux] is in the same companies where Unix resides, and is being made a departmental or workgroup level. It hasn’t necessarily been the case that Linux has been a centrally supported IT platform.”

Perr added that in many cases “there isn’t to-date, significant use by corporate customers of big-ticket, multi-thousand dollar management platforms on Linux, like there is for Windows.”

Still, Aberdeen’s research suggests that suppliers whose Linux-based software management solutions can easily integrate with enterprise management solutions are those more likely to have the largest impact in the Linux market.

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