Open For Business 2

But will Linux ever be more than just a cheap workhorse in the corporate world?

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

May 3, 2002

15 Min Read

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is committing to Linux in a big way. The Department of Energy research site, which performs some of the government's most complex computer simulations of nuclear-waste disposal, pollutant-eating microbes, and the effects of global warming, plans this year to begin installing a 1,400-processor, 8.3-trillion-calculation-per-second supercomputer based on next-generation Intel 64-bit chips and Linux. That's right--the 9-year-old Unix-derived operating system whose low cost and freely accessible source code are capturing a growing share of scientific and technical computing. "Linux is going to be a huge force in the next five years," says Scott Studham, technical group lead for the Richland, Wash., lab's molecular science computing facility.

Yet in the corporate market, Linux still faces something of a technological glass ceiling. While the Energy Department is willing to pay Hewlett-Packard $24.5 million to complete the Linux supercomputer, most business-technology managers don't yet trust the operating system with their most vital applications and data. Studham, a former IBM computer scientist, says he understands their reluctance. "National labs are some of the early adopters of any technology," he says. "If I were a corporate IT manager this year, I'd still be experimenting on Linux."

Linux will become a major force in coming years, says Studham, technical group lead at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which will install a 1,400-processor supercomputer that runs the operating system.

That's because Linux--beloved by systems administrators as a cheap workhorse for serving up files and Web pages, researchers who like its reliability and open source code, and tech-heads who don't like Windows--still doesn't run most of the business software that companies need. Technical support for Linux also is hard to come by, and multiple versions of the software mean it's often incompatible with existing apps. In fact, less than one-third of 405 companies that use Linux run enterprise software on the platform, according to an InformationWeek Research Web survey in March of 550 business-technology professionals responsible for their companies' operating systems. "There are a whole bunch of vendors who aren't motivated to port their software to Linux" because the Windows and Unix markets are bigger, says Ed Leonard, head of technology for DreamWorks Animation, the unit of Glendale, Calif., film-production company DreamWorks SKG that's behind such movies as Shrek and The Prince Of Egypt.

In January, DreamWorks signed a contract with HP to replace 600 $25,000 Unix workstations from SGI Inc. with Linux PCs that cost one-fifth as much. DreamWorks also is installing a 2,000-CPU Linux-based server farm for rendering graphics. But its in-house technical knowledge--the animation unit employs 40 software developers to support about 200 users--makes it a better candidate for Linux than most companies. "If we can squeeze out another 20% of computing power, it's OK if it's not wrapped with a bow," Leonard says. "If the technology is still a little raw, we're willing to make it work."

The most popular uses of servers running Linux--which was designed in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, a Finnish programmer who wanted a version of Unix that ran on Intel chips--still include Web serving, file and printer sharing, and application development. Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents at 80 companies without Linux plans say they won't use the operating system because it doesn't run their most important software. IBM, Oracle, SAP, and others are porting more of their products to Linux, but most enterprise apps still don't run on it. And it'll be a sunny week in Seattle before any Microsoft products do.

Yet Linux's ability to run on a variety of microprocessors and its popularity with the influential scientific crowd mean IT vendors are exploring its use for distributed-computing applications such as utility and grid computing, which could change how companies buy servers, operating systems, and application software. Users of utility data centers will lease computing power instead of buying it, while the grid school posits global webs of computers that can volunteer their resources to machines elsewhere on the Internet. "Wouldn't it be great if you were an airline CIO and you could go out and get computing resources for your applications when you need them at peak?" says Rich De Millo, VP and chief technology officer at HP. "Every enterprise-system vendor I know of is running toward this future at a high speed." Once corporate IT departments consume more computing as a service, pulling resources from a shared pool when demand rises and returning them to the pool when requirements ebb, Linux's ability to bridge architectural differences among various vendors' technologies could help it become a software layer everyone can agree on.

Linux Lineup
Unlike Windows and commercial Unix variants, Linux isn't tied to its machine's architecture and--for the relatively low cost of recompiling or porting source and application code--it can run on processors from HP, IBM, Intel, Sun Microsystems, and others. It runs particularly well on the Intel microprocessors that many people say will handle more tough computing jobs in coming years. "On the technical-computing side, we're seeing more of our apps being ported to Linux," says Richard Ross, CIO of Amerada Hess Corp., a $13.6 billion oil and gas company in New York. So, when businesses want a reliable software platform for data centers that draw computing power from machines distributed across the Internet--the essence of grid computing--IT vendors will increasingly sell them Linux.

That's the theory. So far, though, the benefits of Linux in the scientific community have been slow to trickle down. Forty percent of respondents to the InformationWeek survey at 397 companies that use Linux say they've had problems with their IT staffs' technical knowledge of the operating system, 36% say it's caused software-compatibility problems, and 29% cite poor documentation. Paid support from vendors also gets lukewarm reviews: 57% of 369 respondents say they're only somewhat satisfied or not very satisfied with it.

Top technologists at HP, IBM, and Sun say their Unix and Linux development efforts could merge, creating one economical server platform. "It would be nice if these groups intermarried," says Rob Gingell, chief technologist at Sun's software systems group. "Our customers don't just want us to sell them a microprocessor and an operating system. In the next decade, we'll answer them by having one instruction set, one Java Virtual Machine, and one family of protocols."

Orbitz uses Linux-on-Intel servers to let customers search for airfares, but chief Internet architect Chism says the database that stores reservations can live only on a big Sun Solaris server.

Do IT vendors risk running ahead of customers' needs with such plans? When it comes to high-end applications of Linux, even some users think so. "Vendors talk about avant-garde solutions like Linux clusters and grid computing," says Leon Chism, chief Internet architect at Orbitz LLC, a privately held Chicago online travel agency owned by American, Continental, Northwest, and United airlines. "We don't really need that."

Orbitz books 1 million trips a month. Each time a customer searches for an airfare on its site, Orbitz's app polls 360 Linux-on-Intel servers in the company's data center for low-priced fares downloaded to those machines from the airlines' scheduling systems. The boxes are cheaper than the Sun servers Orbitz uses elsewhere in its data center and are quickly available when Orbitz needs more power to run searches. "Whether we scale up or out makes no difference to how our application runs," Chism says. "In that layer, we don't reap the benefits of Sun hardware."

But the database that stores customers' reservations can live only on a big Sun Solaris server, he says. "It makes a lot of sense to run that on one machine with a lot of processing power and a lot of RAM." As long as there are applications that benefit from adding more CPUs to a single server, Chism says, "there will always be a place for Sun Solaris."

In many ways, that tells the story of Linux in business today. Eighty percent of companies that run Linux use it to serve Web pages, the survey shows. Nearly 60% use it for application development. And 58% say they run file-sharing and printer networks on Linux servers. Less than a third say Linux is used to run enterprise software; just 11% use it in supercomputer clusters.

Users love Linux for the tasks it's trusted to handle: 99% of companies running it report some level of satisfaction, and 84% say they're extremely satisfied. "The theory is to consolidate your servers," says Dave Ennen, a technical support manager at Winnebago Industries Inc., who figures he's sliced his E-mail costs by a third by moving the app onto a partition of Winnebago's IBM mainframe that runs Linux. "I'm looking for savings," says Ennen, whose IT staff is Linux-savvy. Winnebago, a Forest City, Iowa, maker of mobile homes and RVs, may replace 40 Novell NetWare file servers with another Linux installation on the mainframe. One day, Ennen says, network computers running Linux and terminal emulators could replace about 700 Windows PCs.

Because Linux is modifiable and cheap--nearly 90% of technology managers say free or inexpensive licenses were among their main reasons for choosing it--usage is growing at a healthy pace. More than 85% of managers running Linux or planning to in the next year say their number of Linux server licenses will rise this year, according to our study. By comparison, 44% of users say they'll buy more Windows servers, and 17% say they'll add Unix licenses this year.

That's impressive growth, but many businesses still don't entrust their toughest computing tasks to Linux. Besides finding a dearth of compatible apps, most companies aren't as risk-tolerant as the scientific community. Research labs and science companies process reams of data involving problems that often can be broken down into parallel chunks and solved by multiple computers simultaneously. So they've been building supercomputers from clusters of hundreds or thousands of CPUs running Linux. The National Center for Supercomputing Applications, a National Science Foundation center at the University of Illinois, last summer turned on a 1,024-CPU cluster of Intel Pentium III chips running Red Hat Linux to study molecular dynamics, quantum physics, and general relativity. The center last month brought online a 320-processor Linux system, featuring Intel's 64-bit Itanium chips, that's capable of 1 trillion floating point operations per second. The NCSA plans to deploy both supercomputers in a grid-computing project called TeraGrid, which would marshal 13.6 teraflops of computing power. "Itanium-family Linux clusters will be a major scientific-computing platform in the years to come," center director Dan Reed says.

Successful scientific and academic computing has a habit of making its way into widespread business use. Unix and its C development language were written by AT&T's Bell Labs from 1969 to '72 and freely distributed to governments and universities before becoming commercialized in the 1980s. The 1981 inclusion in Berkeley Unix of the TCP/IP software stack by future Sun founder Bill Joy under contract for the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency, let the department link its Arpanet research nodes and led to the rise of the Internet. The NCSA's Mosaic Web browser morphed into Netscape Navigator. And Apple Computer's new Mac OS X is based on FreeBSD, a Unix variant that splintered from Joy's Berkeley project. "The idea of swapping of code, sharing of ideas, is partly ingrained in the advanced-computing community," says Stuart Feldman, IBM's VP for Internet technology and a Bell Labs alumnus. "If you wanted to know how something worked, you looked at it."

Linux: We'll Pass
Linux has secured private-sector footholds not only in infrastructure apps but also among Internet service providers and hosting centers, and in server appliances and some PDAs. Sun last year rolled out Linux handhelds to 3,500 field engineers, and Sharp Electronics this year added Linux to its Zaurus handheld. Linux's portable code plays well in the handheld market, which is characterized by a lack of standardized hardware interfaces. Banks have been replacing Unix servers with Intel machines running Linux for key applications, and Intel president Paul Otellini says the company is targeting the telecom sector with Linux running on Itanium chips. "That's the last stronghold of Sun. The same thing that happened in the financial-services markets can happen in the telcos as they start to come out of their spending funk," he says.

IT managers' resistance to running key business applications on Linux may be giving way. More than 80% of survey respondents running Linux or planning to say they'll be more likely to run critical software on the platform, given the growing support of Linux by large system and chip vendors. And 41% say they plan to run enterprise apps on Linux in the next year, a 10% increase from today.

Even Microsoft is feeling the influence of open-source software's popularity. The company has signed up about 40 customers for its Enterprise Source Licensing Program, which lets users view and debug Windows source code. Microsoft Research and its development-tools product group share some code with academic researchers. In a March interview, outgoing Microsoft president Rick Belluzzo said the company was considering making more source code available to top customers who buy multiyear upgrade plans. Jason Matusow, program manager for Microsoft's "shared source" initiative, says the company is starting to think about "usage scenarios" in which it might release Office source code to customers. But forget Microsoft launching any open-source development projects, chief technical officer Craig Mundie says: "We're not looking for people to do our development work for us."

That's unfortunate, says John Thomas, CIO at Parsons Corp. in Pasadena, Calif., an engineering and construction company with an estimated $2.5 billion in revenue and more than 10,000 Windows PCs. Opening the source code to developers could improve Windows, Thomas says, and at the very least let Parsons better integrate Windows with its engineering apps. "Of course, that would fly in the face of Microsoft's desire to create more revenue," he says.

Many big vendors are welcoming Linux. Sun, which has always hitched its star to Solaris, said in February that it would expand its Linux-Intel offerings to include general-purpose servers priced competitively with others' Intel-based machines, and that it would ship its own Linux distribution that bundles all the software needed to develop and deploy applications. IBM ships Linux on its four server platforms: mainframes, RISC-based pSeries systems and iSeries minicomputers, and Intel-based machines. The company also helped rework 2,800 apps from independent software vendors to run on Linux and has ported its most important software products to the operating system. It has an internal Web site used by hundreds of developers as an "experiment" in whether open-source methods can turn out commercial products. And IBM VP Feldman says developers are building grid-computing software code that runs on Linux.

Meanwhile, HP ships Linux on its Intel-based servers and workstations, supports it on its proprietary PA-RISC processors, and says the operating system will become a more common component in its Utility Data Center product, a server-and-software setup that lets users pull resources from a pool when they're needed to serve an application. HP's ace in the hole, though, may be its close work with Intel, with which it co-designed the Itanium architecture that many say will be the computing platform of the decade.

The problem for big IT vendors is that most customers don't buy Linux from them. Just 8% of technology pros at 469 companies with Linux deployments or plans say they purchase Linux from large computer-system vendors, according to InformationWeek's survey. Nearly 45% buy it from specialty companies, and 30% download it from the Internet.

That could explain users' disenchantment with training and support. David Lifka, CTO at Cornell Theory Center, a high-performance-computing facility that advises companies such as Lockheed Martin and GE Power on IT issues, says multinationals want more predictability than Linux provides. Even companies that need enormous computing power don't view Linux in the same way researchers do, he says. Researchers like Linux because they can rewrite its components to improve performance. "That's not our business," Lifka says. "It's not that there's not value in that; it's just not what most businesses are into. They're interested in their work."

If Linux is to move further into business computing, skeptics like Lifka need to be won over. Lifka runs the Theory Center's production cluster on Windows, which has long supported key business software such as Microsoft SQL Server, IBM's DB2 Universal Database, and Oracle's database. With Microsoft's .Net technologies, engineers can build applications that let users offload computing from their PCs onto a server when a series of calculations becomes too large. Linux doesn't provide that kind of flexibility, Lifka says. And while Linux would be cheaper to buy, he worries about the drain on IT staff from maintaining a Linux environment without the technical support that Microsoft and Unix vendors provide. "If staffers are spending their time fixing bugs, finding patches, and finding tools, they're not doing their job," he says. For Lifka and his ilk, that makes Linux far from a bargain.

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