For years, senior IT management did not care for Linux advocates: they were highly suspicious of the collective programming effort; they couldn’t see how the software could be adequately supported; they didn’t want the ‘ponytail brigade’ bringing unvetted freeware into their computing environment.
But go to any major Linux conference today and two things stand out: the ponytail count is down, and the suits have moved in. Linux has suddenly gone to the top of the enterprise IT agenda.
Blue-chip companies – Unilever, Aviva, Boeing, Daimler Chrysler, and many others – say they are planning to install the open source operating system wherever it is appropriate, sometimes even for mission-critical applications. At the same time, many local and national government agencies around the world are deploying Linux on the server and the desktop, often at Microsoft’s expense.
The analysts’ numbers point to a growing trend. Around 40% of large US corporations now use Linux, according to a survey by Goldman Sachs, the US investment bank. Another revealing study, by IT market research group Gartner, found that 45% of mid-sized businesses are either using or experimenting with it.
As so often with early-stage technologies, the financial services industry has blazed a trail for the pragmatic herd. Analysts say that 2002 was the year of pilot Linux projects in the banking sector – and 2003 and 2004 the years of widespread roll out.
Merrill Lynch is a case in point. The Wall Street bank has deployed Linux on the mainframe and is reporting cost savings of up to 50%. Merrill’s adoption of Linux as its operating environment fits into a broader strategy of server ‘virtualisation’ that it hopes will eventually deliver savings of more than $100 million a year.
Another US bank, Banknorth Group of Maine, shifted to Linux because it was unhappy with the performance of its Windows servers. It has since enjoyed increased uptime, fewer security breaches and smaller licensing costs.
Online financial services companies have seized the Linux opportunity too. E-Bank, which deployed Linux at the middleware application layer for business integration, now has a common view of all the information about its customers. And E*Trade, an online share-trading site, has cut its costs by replacing 60 Sparc-based Solaris servers with 80 Intel-based Linux machines.
Elsewhere, analysts report strong demand from the telecommunications, retail and government sectors. Of those organisations that have migrated from either Unix or Windows environments, most are impressed by Linux or relieved to have left their old platform behind – or both.
“We were using Windows servers but the business was experiencing at least one hour a week downtime during operational hours. We were under management pressure to provide stability and availability,” says Bernard van Niekerk, an Oracle database administrator with Pilat Media, a London-based software company that specialises in scheduling systems for broadcasters. Now, after a migration to Red Hat’s distribution of Linux, the database is showing a 40% increase in performance and the business is saving on licence fees.
“With Red Hat, we pay around £2,000. If 500 people connect, it’s still £2,000. With Microsoft, we were looking at £80 per user to connect. Those licences have become a real management headache,” says van Niekerk.
Often, Linux has been behind the backs of senior IT management, before eventually being embraced by them and then by business executives. “We tried Linux on the mail server first but no, we didn’t tell people at first,” says Michael Seiwert, an IT employee at Bauer Verlag, the German magazine publisher. That was four years ago; today, Seiwert has been rewarded for his initiative and made project leader, while virtually all of the company’s systems run on Linux, including mission-critical Oracle databases and content management systems.
Not everyone using Linux is entirely happy, however. Energis, the UK telecoms company, which has deployed Linux to host more than two million Freeserve email accounts at its two data centres in Leeds, likes using it but has found it difficult to keep up with changes to the core of the operating system, the Linux kernel.
“We originally picked Linux because it was cheap, light and effective, and we continue to use it because of its lightweight nature and its ability to work horizontally and on multiple platforms,” says Ian Massingham, Energis’s hosting director. “The ability to tweak Linux is one of the operating system’s biggest advantages. However, the downside is that a constantly changing operating system can make training difficult, especially if your people don’t have a background in Linux or Unix programming.”
Some IT directors are keeping an open mind, but are adopting a ‘wait-and-see’ policy on Linux, gauging levels of acceptance and success elsewhere. “We have no Linux projects planned, but it is something we are considering as a response to Microsoft’s licensing policy. If we are forced on to a new platform by this policy, then we might as well evaluate our options, including a replacement of [Microsoft] Office,” says Ciaran Bennett, IT manager of London-based property company Annington House.
Peter Stephenson, head of IT for Benfield Group, the UK reinsurance company, is thinking along the samelines: “We are a Microsoft shop and at the moment that serves us well.” But he says he is keeping “a pretty open mind” on things and would not rule out a switch to Linux in the future.
Risk and reward
Many other leading heads of IT in the UK remain to be convinced, however. “We will evaluate Linux in 2004 as part of our infrastructure strategy review,” says Graham Benson, director and CIO of DIY tools retailer Screwfix. “Our current thinking is that while we believe there are potential cost savings associated with Linux, we perceive there also to be certain risks attached to any switch. The decision will, as always, be based upon cost/benefit calculations reconciled against risk profile.”
Ian Takats, group IS director of Holmes Place, says the health club chain is “watching from the sidelines but not progressing [with Linux] at present”. And Robin Harris, an IS director at Smith &Nephew, the medical devices maker, is happy with what he has already got. “We don’t use Linux at all. Our strategy is to use Microsoft products, since the simplicity of a single standard environment keeps our support costs down,” he says.
These and other sceptics appear to be reluctant to trust Linux with important, business-critical applications. Even Linux shops – and many Linux systems vendors – readily appreciate Linux’s current limitations.
Two SAP customers, OMV, an Austrian oil and gas exploration company, and Alcatel, the French telecoms equipment manufacturer, reportedly have rolled out SAP on Linux machines but left their biggest and most sophisticated databases running on IBM’s proprietary mainframe operating system, z/OS.
Clearly, Linux still has some way to go. But the degree to which Microsoft is taking it seriously shows how far it has come already. This became clear when Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, cut short a skiing holiday in Switzerland in March 2003 to fly to Munich in an attempt to dissuade the city council from sanctioning a switch from Windows to Linux. The flying visit failed; Munich decided to go ahead with the Windows-Linux migration anyway, reckoning it will save 90% on licensing costs. Like Bennett of Annington House, Munich had begun to consider Linux when Microsoft introduced its controversial ‘Software Assurance’ licensing scheme in 2002.
If the brouhaha over the Munich deal is anything to go by, the operating system wars are about to enter a new phase. And this time, it is the market incumbents – Windows and Unix – that are on the defensive.