Linux for the Real World

Inertia is cited as one of the main reasons why free and open source software (FOSS) has not yet made significant inroads into Canadian enterprises, two industry insiders agreed during a discussion at Real World Linux in Toronto recently.

While working for the Digital Equipment Organization, Jon “maddog” Hall, executive director at Amherst, N.H.-based Linux International, participated in the launch of three operating systems.

In each case, he observed reluctance by companies to deploy the new operating systems due to the lack of application support. Conversely, independent software vendors (ISVs) didn’t want to spend time and money supporting a platform with little or no install base.

This same conundrum affects enterprise Linux adoption, Hall said. “Managers in the enterprise space are cautious. They want to do what everyone else is doing. It used to be said that you couldn’t get fired for buying IBM [Corp.], and now they say you can’t get fired for buying Microsoft [Corp.].”

Joseph Dal Molin, president of e-cology Corp. and co-founder of the Open Source Health Care Alliance in Toronto, agreed that part of the hesitation of firms to adopt FOSS is mindset.

“We’ve been conditioned to take sides with software vendors as with hockey teams,” he said, but health care and education are sectors where FOSS adoption should find the least resistance because they are public entities and not competing with other corporations, he added.

Dal Molin said more experimentation with FOSS is needed in Canada. If the country does not have FOSS integrated in the IT culture, Canadian firms run the risk of being left behind.

However, Hall added, the opposing inertia is lessening. Many ISVs including Oracle Corp., PeopleSoft Inc. and IBM Corp. have been quick to add Linux interoperability to their platforms.

But there is another way to procure software other than buying commercial off-the shelf packages, Hall said, a route which IT employees who came into the software industry post-1980 have little awareness of.

Pre-1980, software was usually custom-made by a software development firm and paid for once it was functional. When the firm needed subsequent functionalities, it could design it itself or commission further changes from developers.

Hall likened the proliferation and customization of FOSS to a return to that development model, where users can tool software to fit their needs, but this time using an open source platform such as Linux as a starting point. Ross Button, vice-president, emerging technologies at CGI Group Inc. in Ottawa, said now is a good time for companies to start considering custom applications based on FOSS because the industry is entering a refresh cycle.

In the mid-’90s, moving from the mainframe to the client/server model was all the rage but Y2K forced firms to breathe some more life into legacy systems such as Cobol, Button said. The decision for 2004 is to find out where they can leverage FOSS.

The Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATAAlliance) recently released some recommendations for Canadian companies to bear in mind when considering FOSS.

Companies need to assess total cost of ownership over a three- to five-year period, including the level of support, availability of skilled resources and training needed, plus ensuring there are employees trained in open source apps.

Additionally, firms need to evaluate the maturity of different FOSS applications and establish specific criteria for their IT projects.

CATA also recommends establishing formal policies for FOSS use and development as well as nurturing an understanding of FOSS licensing issues, intellectual property (IP) and sharing with the community.

While Canadian adoption of FOSS is currently lagging the U.S., North America as a whole is behind other continents in adoption. Eighty-seven per cent of Canadian companies involve FOSS in their IT strategy, according to a survey by CATA.

Forty-eight per cent have formal policies and strategies for open source development while 23 per cent share with the open source community.

But one reason why FOSS adoption is slower in North America than in other emerging markets is because of the historically heavy investment in off-the-shelf software on the continent and less greenfield opportunities than in Asia, for example.

Additionally, Canadian companies perceived the maturity of FOSS Web applications to be high, the maturity of FOSS application servers, operating systems and desktop productivity applications to be at a medium level and FOSS enterprise software suites to be low, CATA said.

Companies also rated introducing open source Web applications into their organization, given their COTS install base, as very easy. Mainframe operating systems were rated as more challenging and desktop productivity solutions were found very difficult, CATA said.

However, Real World Linux attendees varied from the most zealous of Linux users to hobbyists, newbies and administrators seeking new solutions.

Daryl Churchmuch, network administrator at Edisoft Inc., a developer of electronic data interchange (EDI) e-commerce software in Toronto, attended Real World Linux because he wanted to examine the possiblity of replacing a Microsoft Windows 2000 Server with Linux. Edisoft has a Novell Inc. NetWare backend but needs Microsoft’s SQL Server to test against the e-commerce software it makes, Churchmuch said.

The company also uses SQL Server on Windows 2000 as part of its own infrastructure. Not only does the server crash frequently, Churchmuch is tired of dealing with licensing issues and fees, the viruses, the Trojans, the patching and the holes, he said.

“Virtually every time I have to patch it, I have to restart it and that is on a monthly or bi-monthly basis,” he said.

Whether Edisoft migrates to Linux is uncertain but it is something Churchmuch is seriously considering. If the company does migrate, it wouldn’t look to a company like Red Hat Inc. or Novell to provide it with a solution. Churchmuch said he would install it, configure it and support it in-house.

He also checked out what was happening on the Linux desktop front but said there wasn’t nearly enough Linux desktop providers present at Real World Linux.

On the converse, he said Novell increasingly seems to be getting a better understanding of Linux and how it fits in with the rest of its products. “I’ve attended a lot of its propaganda sessions and every time I talk to it, it’s in a better position to answer questions,” he said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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