Linux: grown up enough?

A late April afternoon, a man wearing a suit sits in an almost empty seminar room located in a downtown Toronto convention centre. Real World Linux, a conference dedicated to the Linux operating system (OS), is winding down.

The man in the suit has just heard a presentation from an IBM Corp. representative talking about financial services firms flocking to Linux, the high-profile open-source OS that has grabbed headlines over the better part of a decade as a possible successor to Windows as the OS king.

An IT-minded executive for a large Canadian financial services firm — a player in the national capital equity market and something of a trading nexus for Canadian companies’ stock (the interviewee requested anonymity for himself and his company) — the man in the suit is skeptical of Linux. His workplace doesn’t use the operating system, and it probably won’t do so soon.

He says Linux still seems somewhat immature. He notes the lack of tools and applications available for it. He wonders about the intellectual property (IP) debate surrounding the OS. “I came to one of the seminars here yesterday, a lawyer talking about the legal implications,” says the man in the suit. “He basically couldn’t finish his presentation because he raised [IP] issues between himself and people in the audience who disagreed with what he was saying… I was under the impression that the legal implications of [open-source software] were relatively well known. But apparently they aren’t. Nobody in the room could agree. That kind of scared me.”

That he sits practically alone in this seminar room indicates not only that the conference is almost over and most people have left. It may as well represent the suited man’s opinion and where it stands in relation to what some other people say about Linux. Judging by surveys, analyst reports and vendor-speak on the matter, it seems he’s practically alone in thinking this open-source stalwart isn’t ready for prime time.

According to Bob Young, co-founder of Red Hat Inc., a Linux distributor in Raleigh, N.C., the financial services sector is bullish about the OS. “These are companies [from which] outfits like IBM and Red Hat are earning hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) says all sorts of businesses are boarding the open-source bandwagon. In a survey the group learned that nine out of 10 companies in this country “include open source in their planning.”

Warren Shiau, research manager for the software research program at IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto, says Linux is the right choice for companies looking for a way out of vendor lock-in. “There are certain areas within financial services where Linux would look to be a logical platform for people to move to, especially in shops that have big Unix back ends.”

Given such confidence in open-source systems, one may well wonder, is the man in the suit overly cautious? Is his company going to miss an opportunity to get out of software-vendor control? Are his concerns valid, a bellwether for other financial services firms eyeing Linux for their own shops?

The truth, of course, is that some financial companies may be benefiting from Linux usage, but that’s not to say the OS is flawless. According to industry insiders and observers, there are certain aspects of the OS that must be kept in mind.

Louis Cyr is vice-president, Quebec region and infrastructure services at ING Insurance Company of Canada, a property and casualty insurance provider headquartered in Montreal. Cyr was skeptical of Linux when he first considered it a couple of years ago. Nonetheless, these days ING owns an IBM zSeries running Suse Linux AG’s version of the OS. This mainframe computer supports all of ING’s Web sites.

When ING investigated Linux in 2002, “I was a little bit reluctant,” Cyr says. “ING is an insurance company, not a software company. We try to stay away from leading-edge technology, because that’s not our cup of tea; that’s not our mission in life.”

ING eventually decided in favour of the Linux box over a contending platform: 70 IBM pSeries servers running AIX. The mainframe won in part because IBM was looking for a large North American firm to adopt the technology, and was willing to offer a discount on the equipment should ING choose it. But according to Cyr, the Linux-based mainframe brings another advantage beyond big discounts: it’s easier on the IT department.

“Obviously to manage 70 boxes versus one, there’s a huge difference,” Cyr says.

ING’s zSeries implementation was successful — Cyr crows about a recent disaster recovery test that the computer passed easily — but installing the mainframe did present certain challenges. For instance, some software isn’t certified to run on Linux. ING recently had to wait for IBM to approve a software package that the insurance company bought before putting it on the system.

As well, “we had some performance issues,” Cyr says, adding that those problems caused some concern that perhaps Linux was not the right platform. “I went very high at IBM saying I doubted that the platform would do this or that.”

But almost as bad as discovering that a substantial IT investment doesn’t work as advertised, Cyr learned that the performance problem had to do with an application, not the zSeries unit. He had to back pedal, apologize to IBM for pointing an accusatory finger at the computer maker.

Aside from application integration issues, Linux brings other problems to the table, notably a heavy legal briefcase. The OS is at the heart of a multi-billion dollar lawsuit from Lindon, Utah-based The SCO Group Inc. against IBM. SCO claims that IBM slipped some of SCO’s proprietary Unix code into Linux. SCO wants compensation for the alleged move, saying IBM has effectively damaged the Unix market.

That parting legal shot from SCO’s bow, fired last year, has incited a number of other lawsuits, court motions et cetera as the IT industry attempts to discern just who owns which parts of what operating system, and what end-user organizations are allowed to do with the programs.

Cyr is cognizant of the legal concerns surrounding Linux but “I haven’t lost sleep over that,” he says, apparently confident that SCO’s lawsuit against IBM will fall down in court.

Still, not everyone is as onside with Linux-based systems as ING seems to be. Brian Hansen, IT manager at Vantis Credit Union in Winnipeg, says his company doesn’t use the OS.

“We’re stuck in a Microsoft rut, although with these viruses and worms lately I’m beginning to think it’s time to contemplate going in another direction. Whether Linux is that direction or whether it’s something else, that would all have to be evaluated. It’s kind of hard when the majority of users are (used to) Windows and your people are trained on Windows.”

Hansen says Linux might be an option for Vantis’s back-office systems in the future. Another option would put Apple in the credit union’s IT core.

“I’ve been considering more and more something like Mac on the server side. The big reason is, from talking to a colleague, if you buy a Mac… you have unlimited licences, unlimited clients.”

Why do some companies buy into Linux while others stay away? Shiau from IDC Canada figures it might be a matter of national tendencies.

“This wouldn’t apply to Linux specifically, but to software in general: the fellow you spoke to (the man in the suit) could in part be a refection of the generally more conservative nature of IT in Canada. With CRM, we’re behind the States in adoption. With ERP, we’re behind the States; supply chain, we follow the States a bit. Linux, from what I understand…we’re a bit behind the States as well.”

In this case ING would buck the trend. But Cyr has a somewhat different take on the situation, relaying a story about his work at Belair, an insurance company that ING owns. In 1997 Belair set a milestone, selling the first auto insurance policy online.

IBM invited Cyr to describe his company’s triumph at a user conference. Cyr sat beside a representative of U.S. brokerage firm Charles Scwab & Co. Inc. “I had a team of four doing Web design,” Cyr recalls. “This guy had two teams of 50. He was saying they were delivering new stuff every week on the Web.

“Prior to 2000 a lot of American companies had huge budgets to do R&D, which Canadian firms, I believe, don’t have,” Cyr adds, blaming budget, not caution, for some companies’ reluctance to install Linux. “I don’t think it’s a matter of ability, or intent, or willingness to take risk. I think it’s more of a budget issue.”

Bob Young from Red Hat says financial services firms are devoting more and more of their budgets to preparing for Linux, in part because it affords corporations a degree of control over their software that proprietary programs simply can’t offer.

“Open source gives you not just the binaries you want on your computer, but gives you the source code that allows you to make changes,” Young says.

Control is an important item in Linux’s “pro” list, says Shiau, pointing out that with this OS, companies “cut down on how much the vendor locks them in. They’ve taken a large degree of control back. Now they’re really making the vendors compete on what sort of overall value they can provide, rather than being tied to a particular OS.”

Cyr, however, says control over the software is not so important. “It’s interesting that we’re not stuck with IBM or not stuck with Microsoft. However, whether we like it or not we buy it through IBM anyway. It’s IBM that distributes the software on its platform.”

What is important, Cyr says, is taking your time. ING’s go-slow approach to implementing the zSeries played into the success of the install. “We were not pressed for time,” he says, adding that it’s an infrequent luxury. “We’re very often caught in a situation where we have to deliver yesterday. This one was handled more like, I wouldn’t say an R&D project, but we took six months… We took the time we needed to design the solution and test the solution.”

The design and test portions of new technology are crucial, judging by the words of Stacey Quandt, principal of Quandt Analytics in Santa Clara, Calif. and an expert in open-source systems. She advises companies that are considering Linux to avoid over-simplification.

“For example, customers who built applications on top of Red Hat Advanced Server 2.1 may face challenges in migrating these applications, due to non-standard C++ libraries,” Quandt says. “Carefully evaluate a Linux distributor prior to acquisition.”

Perhaps this mirrors the suited man’s mindset: careful evaluation. Having heard the legal opinions, the integration issues, and having weighed the pros and cons of installing Linux, he may not be willing to make the leap to the OS just yet, but perhaps in time his firm will embrace the open-source program. After all, he’s here at Real World Linux, which suggests he’s at least considering a future migration.

“I’m just starting to look at it again,” he says, pointing out that Linux was off the radar screen during its early years, too new for his firm. Now he’s “realizing that it’s coming out of the bleeding edge category into something a bit more mature.”

— with files from Rebecca Reid

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