Some critical Linux apps still lacking

At financial services giant Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., CTO John McKinley is blazing a trail to boost productivity and enhance ROI with his strategy. And that trail has led him to pursue a company-wide deployment of Linux open-source software.

McKinley says Linux is ready for prime time and set to take on increasing responsibility in the datacenter. “The speed of the evolution of the Linux story has surprised even me,” he said.

CTOs of major enterprises such as Merrill Lynch are adopting Linux in increasing numbers and scale. These chief technologists, spurred by the new reality of leaner, meaner IT budgets, cite savings in hardware and software costs as well as benefits of the operating system’s stability and scalability.

A 2002 Forrester Research Inc. survey found that of 286 IT decision-makers, 28 per cent plan to use Linux for enterprise application servers in 2003 and 31 per cent plan to use Linux for Web servers.

Chief technologists are reporting favourable results, experts say. They say doubts about Linux are gradually disappearing as the OS gains acceptance and support from big-name vendors such as IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co.

“People are enthusiastic before they implement Linux and they are even more so after deploying Linux, which reverses the usual trend,” said Dan Kuznetsky, program manager for the operating environments group at Framingham, Mass.-based research company IDC. “[IT leaders] find it not only will it do what it promises, but will do a lot more.”

However, there is a cloud in the OS’s silver lining. Linux does not yet lend itself to an off-the-shelf implementation, and enterprises still must test it and integrate it into their systems, Kuznetsky said. But several companies, including Red Hat and IBM, are eager to assist with Linux implementations.

Additionally, many CTOs have the expertise in-house to do their own Linux integration. J. E. Henry, CIO of Regal Entertainment Group, the 520-locations theatre chain based in Knoxville, Tenn., said that in 2002 Regal deployed 3,000 Linux-based IBM point-of-sale terminals with minimal help from IBM. “We have very talented people and we do a lot of internal development,” Henry said. “There’s some risk-taking involved [in implementing Linux] but the fact is that Linux has been so stable it takes a lot of the risk out of it.”

The growth of Linux is especially strong in the enterprise server market, where IT executives are finding more and more uses for the OS. “As Linux becomes a mainstream choice in more and more markets, more application and development tool vendors will say, ‘We need to have a Linux solution,'” Kuznetsky said. “Linux has taken on the position of the No. 2 server option,” behind Microsoft.

Money talks

CTOs are using Linux to replace both back-office, mainframe systems and to take on lightweight duties such as running multiple application servers.

At Merrill Lynch, McKinley is trying to cut costs by using Linux to replace mainframe enterprise servers using IBM servers running Linux, and by using Linux with Intel-based, commodity PCs and appliances. “We are using Linux on Intel and Linux on IBM z-Series [mainframe],” he said. “We are riding both horses right now.”

McKinley envisions Linux adoption spreading to embrace a wider variety of applications as companies such as Oracle and SAP move to offer support for the OS. There is nothing to stop Merrill Lynch from deploying such applications as well, he said. “We are using Linux for everything from trading applications to infrastructure servers.”

McKinley couldn’t provide dollar figures on Merrill Lynch’s savings from Linux, but others are ready to talk in those terms. Alex Zoghlin said Chicago-based Orbitz saved millions of dollars in 2002 using Linux to replace expensive hardware, including Sun Microsystems’ Java application servers using Sun’s Solaris software.

“We replaced our entire mid-tier architecture,” Zoghlin said. “We replaced US$7 million worth of hardware with about US$80,000 of hardware. So we saved about US$6 million by moving to Linux.”

IDC’s Kuznetsky said some companies will have to calculate the cost of hiring IT staff familiar with Linux or its forebear, Unix. “If you are a Windows shop, the learning curve can be steep…because there is a different philosophical base for Linux as compared to Windows,” he said. “In a Windows environment, everything is done for you, while the presumption behind Linux is that the developer controls everything.”

In a Microsoft-centric environment, Kuznetsky said, “the operating system attempts to do a lot to ease the burden of the developers. But the developers have to go out of their way to get outside the software to do special things. So we find Windows-based shops often have cultural shock when they run into Linux. Although if they already have Unix, it’s like an old friend.”

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