That's the question the Financial Times was asking last week, and it's a rather strange question, when you think about it. It really begs another question: Was there ever, let alone still, anyone who thought Linux was "just for start-ups." Who would these people be? People who think a Windows server OS is a secure, stable platform that every established company should be using? The sorts of people who have the bright idea of putting Apple hardware in their data centers? Surely not anyone who has the slightest understanding of what Linux is capable of, or who understands that open source operating systems are much more than a solution for cash-starved start-ups trying to do computing on the cheap.
Start-ups very rarely build themselves supercomputers, and certainly not the sorts of heavy duty number-crunching machines that make it on to the TOP500 list. But a quick glance at the latest list, from November 2010, shows that well over 80 percent of the fastest 500 machines in the world use a Linux server operating system. There's a few UNIX machines in there too, and an handful of Windows HPC boxes -- if one can call a supercomputer a box -- but by and large it's all Linux, Linux, Linux.
And if you had to pick one company in the world that was the ultimate antithesis of a start-up, you could do a lot worse than picking IBM. Big Blue is vast, the epitome of the establishment, and just about as un-start-uppy as you can possibly imagine. Not only that, but the company's boffins has been in the news this month, thanks to its use of the SUSE Linux Enterprise Server OS in IBM Watson, the machine built to take on the human race at Jeopardy.
As it turned out, the Linux-powered Watson was more than capable of beating us humans at our own TV quiz game, even if it did have trouble grasping that Toronto is in Canada, not the United States. But then, most people outside North America have the same trouble, so perhaps it's understandable.
Going back to the Financial Times, the point of its start-up comment is that Linux -- and in fact SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, the same Linux server OS that powers Watson -- is at the heart of a new trading system, the first phase of which was rolled out last week by the London Stock Exchange (LSE). The exchange is the world's fourth largest, and a bastion of bowler hat and umbrella establishment if ever there was one. Start-up, it most certainly is not.
The open source software system replaces one written in C# in a Microsoft.Net environment, running on Windows Server and SQL Server. The Linux-based system delivers trades some 15 times faster than the Windows one it replaced.
Of course, nothing is perfect in this world, and as if to prove the point, in the first few days of trading the new Linux-based system has been plagued by teething problems. But then again, the exchange had plenty of trouble with the old Windows-based system.
The only real problem with Linux is that it doesn't always provide those who sell it with very much in the way of profits. Novell obviously saw potential in SUSE Linux when it bought the company back in 2003, but last week its shareholders approved the sale of the company -- Linux and all -- to Attachmate.
Whether Attachmate can do any better than Novell at making money out of Linux is something no human can accurately predict. Maybe the company should ask Watson.
Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.