Thinking twice about moving from Unix with enterprise Linux

Migrating from high-end Unix-based systems to commodity x86/Linux platforms has been a popular idea for the last few years, at least in theory. But it turns out that not everyone thinks going full-on with Linux is the best solution — at least not yet.

Dan Blanchard , vice president of enterprise operations at Marriott International Inc. , is serious about Linux. He says his company’s transition from HP-UX and IBM AIX is ongoing — and inevitable. “We’re migrating and we have a strategy to continue deployment of Linux,” he says. “A 100 per cent transition will take place over several years and will be completed as technology is refreshed and as other opportunities arise.”

Tony Iams hears that refrain from IT executives frequently. “Companies have had a long-term goal of consolidating all of their Unix systems onto Linux,” says Iams, senior analyst with Ideas International, Inc. The most oft-stated goal is to adopt industry-standard technology across the board, and that usually means Linux running on x86 hardware.

But Norm Fjeldheim, CIO at Qualcomm Inc., decided to take a pass a Solaris to Linux migration. The company does use Linux for some applications, but Fjeldheim’s IT team concluded that migrating its industrial-grade Solaris systems to Linux was a dubious business proposition. “We’re not moving from Sun to Linux. We haven’t been able to make the economic case for it,” he says.

This seemed to echo the 2004 report from the Yankee Group which companies found no big advantage in switching from Unix and Windows Server to Linux.

While it appeared at first glance that Qualcomm would save money up front on hardware and operating system costs by migrating, the price comparisons offered by vendors were based on retail prices. “We don’t pay retail [and] when we figured our discounts [with Sun], the price advantages went away for Linux pretty fast,” he says.

But that wasn’t the only issue. His team was not satisfied with the quality of the administrative tools available for the Linux environment. At the time Qualcomm’s IT staff did the assessment — some 18 months ago — the things that make an administrator’s job easier “really didn’t exist to the same degree in Linux as they did on Unix-based systems.” And that, he says, would have translated into larger administrative costs.

As director of IT, Matthew Clark was part of the team that reviewed the Linux option. The company’s ratio of administrators to users is currently 500 to 1 (although he plans to lower that to about 450 to 1). “With Linux it would have been 150 or 175 to 1. We would have had to hire three additional administrators for every administrator we have right now working on Unix,” he says.

Iams isn’t surprised to hear that assessment. “That’s traditionally been one of Suns’ strong points. They’ve optimized their systems for that metric,” he says.

Clark acknowledges that the administrative tools have improved since Qualcomm last reviewed its Linux options, but he still thinks Linux would be more costly. “If we started today with the new [tools] coming out we might be in the neighborhood of two [admins] for every one.” While the numbers didn’t add up for Linux as a Solaris replacement today, Clark is impressed with Linux’s overall capabilities and says it will continue to have a place at Qualcomm. “We like the performance and we recognize that throwing a whole bunch of little boxes at things can work really well in certain applications.”

Blanchard agrees that Linux doesn’t work for every application. He’s seen cases where Marriott’s IT team has looked at a Linux migration and decided not to proceed. But overall, most of the platforms moving to Linux at Marriott today are high-end Unix systems. He thinks the technology and the tools are sufficient for Marriott’s needs.

“We started talking about enterprise-class Linux systems ten years ago. It took a while to get that up and running,” he says. The strategy now is to continue to redeploy on Linux.

It also helps that Marriott’s system vendors are supporting the initiative. Rather than trying to convince the hospitality company to stay on Unix systems and high-end server hardware, both IBM and HP have been helping to make those migrations go smoothly. “Our vendors are very comfortable with this transition,” Blanchard says.

For now, however, Unix systems are still very much in the mix as Marriott plans migrations on a case-by-case basis. “We do not have a strategy to just close our eyes and go with one particular platform to the exclusion of all others,” he says.

Qualcomm is also getting more bang from the buck from its Solaris 10 systems by taking advantage of the operating system’s virtualization technology, Solaris Containers. That feature was also responsible for stopping the Linux transition plans at Bank of New York Mellon in its tracks.

Dennis Smith, first vice president in the bank’s advanced engineering group, says that when he started planning last January, he anticipated a wholesale “replatforming” of all of the Solaris systems at the bank onto Linux servers. That hasn’t happened.

After transitioning a few systems, Smith decided to bring Sun back in to talk about leveraging its virtualization technology and began to experiment with Solaris Containers. “We’re in the middle of that now,” he says.

Sun’s Containers technology, which creates virtual machine instances that share a single copy of the operating system, can make for a compelling economy of scale argument, Iams says. It can scale much better than VMware , it is more mature than Parallels’ Virtuozzo and it’s supported by Sun as part of the core operating system.

With Containers, he says, “You have a much smaller footprint per instance so you get a much higher level of consolidation. While you might a few dozen [virtual machines per physical server] with VMware, with Containers it’s hundreds — or even thousands — per server.”

Smith saw enough of a benefit from Containers to change his plans — but he’s still keeping Linux in the picture.

“We won’t be as aggressive in replatforming to Linux as we initially thought,” he says. But, he adds, “We feel that both platforms will have a place in our infrastructure.”

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