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."