Executive Briefing on Linux

From bedroom to boardroom

For something that was originally conceived in a bored Finnish student’s bedroom one summer, Linux has made surprisingly deep inroads into the enterprise. Today, the Unix-like operating system helps power more than one-third of all web servers and many enterprise software suppliers are furiously porting, or have already ported, their software to Linux.

Significantly, there has also been a gradual acceptance of Linux as a platform for mission-critical applications. Underlining the progress that the operating system is making at the high end, about 20% of IBM mainframe capacity shipped now runs Linux, up from 15% in the first half of 2002.

How did this happen? The reasons are many and varied, but essentially three powerful forces converged. First, IT directors came under considerable pressure to reduce their budgets as the economy slowed. They were forced to seek low-cost alternatives and many settled on Linux.

Another key factor was the support of Intel, traditionally Microsoft’s closest ally, and the support of IBM. Finally, the technology matured quickly: Linux closed the gap on proprietary Unix and is also considered by many as more secure than Windows.

Like other grass-roots technologies, Linux permeated through the enterprise IT infrastructure often without the knowledge or tacit approval of the IT director – IT staff could simply download it, install it and run whatever open source applications they needed in order to get their projects finished.

In this way, it gradually became established as the primary platform for many workloads such as web serving, email management and file and print. Slowly but surely, IT managers embraced Linux and finance directors warmed to it too.

Now, with a new version of the kernel on its way and an increasing number of blue-chip companies deploying Linux, the momentum seems almost unstoppable.

Quote, unquote

“I never go to customer meetings. I don’t like customers.”
Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux

“Non-commercial software products in general, and Linux in particular, present a competitive challenge for us and for our entire industry, and they require our concentrated focus and attention.”
Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO, in a memo to staff

“One of the inhibitors for Microsoft [Windows] is that it is like learning a new language. Moving across from Unix is like learning a new accent.”
Russell Coombes, UK Linux business development manager for Hewlett-Packard

“Microsoft will be wiped from the face of the Earth [by Linux].”
Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle

“In 2004, Linux adoption will explode in every data centre, challenging CIOs to keep proliferation under control.”
Forrester Research analyst Ted Schadler

Legal eagles

Linux evangelists say that it was only a matter of time before a major IT vendor waded in to claim a share of the spoils.

The legal battle between SCO Group, owner of the Unix intellectual property, and IBM, which SCO claims donated hundreds of thousands of lines of Unix code to Linux, has raised questions about the short-term future of Linux.

IBM denies the allegations and many analysts have questioned the merits of SCO’s case against it. But the lawsuit has generated some concern. Some analysts, notably George Weiss of Gartner, have advised companies to postpone new Linux projects until the legal impasse is broken.

But Linux users do not appear to have been put off. The early results of SCO’s Linux licensing program yielded just one licensee and customer surveys have generally indicated overwhelming opposition to the charges.

Many are clearly angred by the chain of events. In one online poll, IT managers in the US expressed determination to resist SCO’s licence-fee claims.

“Regarding SCO’s ridiculous attempt to extort $699 per CPU from Linux users, there is no way I would authorise such a payment,” said Terry Gale, IT manager of the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit in California.

“Pay SCO? In your dreams,” added Wally Knapp, senior director of technical services at Baltimore Community College in Maryland.

The lawyers may be getting rich, but this is one story that the Linux community hopes does not run and run.

Business drivers

Linux is the world’s fastest-growing operating system. There are about 50,000 downloads of the kernel each month, according to some estimates and that figure is steadily growing.

Sizing the market of a product that is freely downloadable is not an easy task. But analysts at IDC reckon that Linux grabbed 13.7% of the market for server operating systems in 2002, up from 9% in 2001 and almost zero in 1999, and its share will jump to 25.2% by 2006. Meanwhile, Unix is in decline: its market share in unit shipments will fall from 14.6% to 11.9%.

There are four key drivers for this rapid progress.

Cost: Linux can, of course, be downloaded for free or bought on CD for a nominal price. For IT departments with Unix skills the cost savings of switching from Unix to Linux can be immense. It is more difficult and, therefore, costlier to migrate from Windows to Linux.

Skills: For several years, most IT undergraduates in the UK have been trained in Linux and open source tools, such as PHP and Perl, sending a steady stream of Linux experts into the corporate sector and helping to close the gap on the vast ‘eco-system’ of Windows specialists.

Functionality: Linux runs well on servers with four processors, making it suitable for many enterprise applications. It has also benefited from the trend towards clustering of sophisticated applications, such as Oracle, across a number of connected boxes.

Support: Where IBM,HP and Oracle led, others have followed. Linux now can count the biggest names in the IT industry as supporters – bar one, of course.

Picking a penguin

While on holiday in Australia as a boy, Linus Torvalds, the future developer of the Linux operating system, was bitten by a baby penguin. Despite that experience, or perhaps because of it, Torvalds became fascinated with the flightless marine bird.

When it came to designing a mascot for his new operating system, Torvalds, by then a student at Helsinki University, tried a few things out before settling on the image of an overweight, yellow-beaked penguin.

Torvalds has never satisfactorily explained his choice of emblem. He once said: “Some people have told me they don’t think a fat penguin really embodies the grace of Linux, which just tells me they have never seen an angry penguin charging at them in excess of 100mph. They’d be a lot more careful about what they say if they had.”

Cartoonist Larry Ewing designed the official logo after a competition in 1996, using the ‘Gimp’ open source design tool. The image proved highly versatile and is used to signify a wealth of Linux projects, products and user groups. Anyone can use it to promote a Linux-based initiative, and there are no licensing fees associated with it. There is even a real ‘Tux’ – a penguin in Bristol zoo, given to Torvalds as a birthday present by a group of admirers.

In recent years, there have been suggestions that the penguin should be replaced as Linux’s logo by something less cuddly, such as an eagle or a shark, in order to help the open-source operating system gain broader acceptance in the boardroom. But Tux’s fans, already upset about the creeping commercialisation of their beloved operating system, regard that as a step too far.

Chips and blue-chips

If there was one thing that signalled the progression of Linux from hobbyists’ plaything to serious enterprise IT platform, it was the decision of Intel, the semiconductor giant, to optimise its processors for Linux. Once the major systems vendors, including IBM and Dell, began developing Linux servers at the end of the 1990s, enterprise market adoption of Linux became only a matter of time.

Even suppliers that were initially wary of Linux have been compelled to support it. Perhaps the most dramatic U-turn was made by Sun Microsystems, which said in 2002 that it would develop Intel-based Linux boxes, reversing a 20-year strategy of only producing servers based on its own proprietary chip architecture.

Now, Linux is used by blue-chip companies such as Boeing, Merrill Lynch, Daimler Chrysler and Unilever.

Heart of the matter

Dozens of developers from around the world descended on Ottawa in Canada in July 2003 for the latest of the annual Linux kernel summits. Delegates to the invitation-only event, attended by the great and the good of the Linux community, including Linus Torvalds and Andrew Morton, reached agreement on a range of proposed developments and improvements to the kernel.

The summits have become a key date in the calendar for the Linux community. The event is instrumental in on-going efforts to close the gap between Linux and Windows and proprietary Unix in terms of scalability and functionality, say supporters.

The Linux operating system has developed in two parallel tracks. The ‘stable’ kernel, which has an even-numbered appendix, is at version 2.4 while the ‘development’ kernel, which has an odd number, is at version 2.5. Linux distributors are now preparing for the move from version 2.4 to version 2.6, which is due in a few months. Version 2.4 will still be maintained. Version 2.8 will likely follow in 2004 or 2005.

Among the changes in the new kernel are the addition of a new block I/O (input-output) layer infrastructure and improvements to the virtual memory to make it more scalable. But these and other changes are tweaks to the system to make it easier to manage, rather than substantial new features.

Meanwhile, Linux distributors continue to develop their own versions of the operating system for different tasks. SuSE Linux, for example, has produced a more secure and more scalable version of Linux, called CGL (carrier-grade Linux), which it is selling to telecommunications carriers.

Migration trends

While some companies have switched from Windows to Linux, there is far greater evidence of migration from proprietary Unix, which is a cheaper and easier to manage migration. Unix vendors – IBM, Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Sun Microsystems – all argue that their rivals’ customers should migrate from Unix to Linux. But they seem less determined to encourage their own Unix clients to make the switch, however.

For example, Sun has recently launched a campaign to encourage HP users to switch from HP-UX, dubbed ‘HP Away’. HP, for its part, has published a white paper that says that most users of Sun Solaris should consider a migration to Linux.

But HP concedes that some companies are better equipped to make the move than others. Specific factors include :

1. Use of well-published Unix, C and C++ code standards

2. Access to source code that would enable code base to be rebuilt of necessary

3. Use of standard libraries, as opposed to custom or home-grown libraries

4. Non-reliance on platform-specific capabilities, such as threading, shared memory and process communication

5. Verify that third-party hardware or software dependencies exist in the target Linux environment.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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