Linux as an operating system for business applications has been getting more and more attention during the past several years. The dynamic has changed quickly and, seemingly, in Linux's favor.
Developers have lead the charge by increasing the availability of Linux-based solutions for tasks appropriate for the operating system. Today, all of the major hardware and software vendors -- i.e., the folks who have to be on board for all but the most bleeding edge companies to try a new approach or technology -- have jumped on the Linux bandwagon with both feet. Likewise, a powerful new Linux kernel, built with business in mind, marches toward release.
As a result, Linux's progression into the enterprise has been startling.
"The move of Linux into the heart of the enterprise has come through the edge server, e-mail server, firewall then moved into cluster of some sort, or a project," says Jason Pettit, a project manager for SGI. "The piece that has been missing, really the next step, is the move of Linux into the highest level of enterprise."
A key component of this step is that Linux is moving from specialized number-crunching-type applications -- such as those performed in academic and financial settings -- to far more common applications, such as customer relationship management, business intelligence, and enterprise resource planning.
Until recently, much of the attention showered on Linux was aimed at data centers in big organizations. As Linux made progress here, it has also begun making progress in more modest server rooms. In some cases, these are located at smaller companies. In others, they serve branch offices of bigger companies.
Today, cost is one of biggest issues when considering a Linux deployment. There is a lively debate in the operating system community today about whether, and by how much, Linux is less expensive than other operating systems. Skeptics argue that although Linux ostensibly is free, that cost is actually a minor component of the ongoing cost of operating an enterprise-grade operating system. Overall costs, they claim, are more or less the same.
Linux proponents counter that the fact that the operating system is free is only one piece of the savings. The lion's share of the savings stems from the fact that Linux demands less human intervention than does Windows or Unix.
"Linux is catching on in both technically savvy firms and others very quickly because not only the cost of acquisition, but more importantly because ... the cost of deployment, administration and management is very low," says Evan Bauer, a consultant and principle research fellow, for the Robert Frances Group. "If you have a Windows server you have had eight patches [to deploy] in the last six weeks. Each takes multiple hours per server per installation."
In small server rooms, the luxury of not needing to fiddle with fixes grows. In the case of small companies, there may not be anyone with expertise on staff. If the server room is in a remote location for a bigger company, the location may be inconvenient to support.
However, none of this does any good for the organization if the operating system is unreliable or good tools aren't available. Two key trends, both of which are ongoing, are helping Linux gain its seat next to other Unix variants and Windows. The first issue is gaining support -- big support -- from vendors. The second is the ongoing upgrading of the kernel -- the key DNA of the operating system.
The list of major computing companies and end users supporting Linux is large. IBM, Oracle, Computer Associates, and innumerable others are moving to Linux. Indeed, the evolution parallels the evolution of grid and related computing approaches.
Efrain Rovira, the worldwide director of Linux marketing for the Hewlett-Packard, says the rate that enterprises are moving to Linux -- including small and midsize organizations -- is accelerating. "Customers migrating from Unix into Linux need to migrate the data if they have their own applications," he says. "If they are shrink-wrapped BEA, SAP, Oracle [or others], Linux becomes a golden opportunity to reduce costs ... It boils down to a four letter word: Cost."
This growth will only accelerate with the release of the next Linux kernel, Linux 2.6. The new Linux kernel is more scalable, will run on more processors simultaneously and, for this reason, is more appropriate for heavy processing loads. The kernel is being finalized, and is expected to gradually become available over the next few months.