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The Linux love affair: Will users ever be able to commit?

400 users love Linux. But, are they fond enough of the open source operating system to commit to long-term, mission critical relationship?

Server administrators across a variety of software and hardware platforms are flirting with Linux but few are ready to make a full time commitment to the open source operating system for their most important applications, a recent TechTarget survey found.

Approximately three out of ten respondents to a poll of 650 users across six TechTarget search sites said they were going to increase their use of Linux as the operating system for many of their enterprise-wide applications-though probably not their most critical ones.

According to the survey, one third of the IT administrators polled cited database as their most critical application. Yet less than 5% said they are currently using Linux to run those crucial database programs or other key apps such as email. The survey was conducted last spring among registered members of searchWin2000, searchEnterpriseServers, search400, search390, searchSolaris, and searchHP.

What search400 users said about Linux:
  • More than 15% of search400 users said they will run an increasing portion of their server-based applications on Linux in the next two years, but none plan to run their most mission-critical application on Linux.
  • Just three out of 125 respondents said they would choose Linux as the OS on which to build an IT infrastructure, if starting from scratch.
  • "I believe Linux is still a bleeding-edge OS and not nearly as stable as the iSeries OS we have now. Also, it is not known as well in the programming community so resources are limited." -- search400 user.
  • "We currently are using Linux as a web site server and anticipate using Linux as a firewall. [Linux] provides a great deal of flexibility and has shown to be very stable, unlike our Windows NT server that was performing some of these functions previously." -- search400 user.

Linux, an open source Unix cousin, has captured a lot attention from many of technology's most powerful juggernauts. The Linux operating system is used in systems ranging from personal digital assistants (PDAs) and Tivos (digital VCR-like machines) to IBM mainframes and supercomputers. Last year, IBM pledged to spend $1 billion on Linux and offers Linux on all of its servers. Big Blue along with Hewlett-Packard, Intel and Computer Associates are backing the non-profit Open Source Development Lab. The Lab is charged with helping to bring enterprise class enhancements to Linux and other open source software.

Why then are IT shops taking a go-slow approach? Among the reservations cited in the TechTarget survey and follow-up interviews were: the expense of retraining end-users and IT staff, concerns about the newness and long-term viability of the Linux OS, lack of adequate vendor support, questions about security and stability and a dearth of compatible business software.

"Most of our critical applications run on Windows NT/2000 and not on Linux," said Tony Matos, manufacturing administrator with Lockheed Martin Corporation NE&SS-Marine Systems of Baltimore, Md, whose division is testing Linux as a Web server. "As more of our engineering applications become available on Linux we will have to reevaluate those critical processes," Matos added.

But vendors of common business applications aren't exactly scrambling to embrace the Linux platform either. "A company (offering) a CRM application on Linux wouldn't make much money with it now," explained Bill Claybrook, an analyst with Aberdeen Group of Boston, Mass. Though quite a few independent software vendors (ISVs) have Linux ports of popular products waiting in the wings, Claybrook said many ISVs are waiting to see Linux gain a little more market share before jumping in .

For IT shops, this lack of Linux market penetration translates into "limited application availability" and "increased compatibility problems," noted Dave Shepard of the fraternal benefit society, Aid Association for Lutherans, which runs a big iron 390 shop and uses IBM's AIX for its Web servers. "Linux will have to demonstrate greater market acceptance before we would seriously consider moving in that direction. We have no idea whether Linux will be around for the long-term or not."

Scalability limitations also come into play for larger applications such as databases, according to Claybrook. While IBM, Oracle and other major database vendors offer Linux products, the operating system can only really scale up to an eight-way machine. "But in the next year and a half you will see Linux scaling up to 16-way and 32-way machines," he said.

It's also too early in Linux's lifecycle to expect a lot of new Linux applications, said Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst with International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass.

Given the development of operating systems, it's not surprising that Linux is quite strong for infrastructure uses such as Web and print serving, Kusnetzky said. Such applications are usually written by the same developers that wrote the operating system. However, the more specialized user-end applications require the expertise of other developers.

People only really started paying attention to Linux two or three years ago, Kusnetzky said. Given that it takes over 18 months to design, build and test a new application, he said it's logical to expect applications to start to appear about now.

Kusnetzky likens the situation to Windows NT in the early '90s. "You wouldn't have developed an application for NT in '92 when Microsoft had less than 1% (about 16,000 installations) of the operating system environment. "But a few years later with 350,000 users, you would start thinking about it."

IDC is projecting Linux will be widely available in most market sections by 2005, Kusnetzky said.

But there are uses for Linux such as Web serving or firewalls that many IT pros are deploying now. Larry Nies of NSC, Inc. is one of them. Nies' shop runs iSeries 400s (formerly AS/400s) but Linux compliments what they are doing. Using Linux for a Web server "provides a great deal of flexibility" and is very stable, he said.

"I believe the Windows OS stability problems over the past few years has opened the door for another OS to spread its wings," Nies said. The downside of Linux has been teaching staff to use it, he said.

Although the OS is more or less free to buy or license, implementing Linux is far from cost free. The question of supporting Linux is an issue for users, the survey found.

Nor is updating a Linux system particularly easy, added Christian Stahl, a senior consultant with Hewlett-Packard in Rockville, Md. Shops need to find their own patches and such. Supporting end users is also tricky. "People want support within two hours and that's not available with Linux," he said.

Echoing those sentiments, Windows administrator Mark Pleasance of Toronto-based Q9 Networks Inc. finds the "service and support" issue difficult and expensive. "If you can't find good technical people (with experience) it would be very difficult to maintain a Linux server system(s). Finding people that can maintain a Windows system is easier," he said.

But Pleasance warns against zealousness for any operating system. Windows, Unix and Linux all have strengths and weaknesses to be considered. "Biases are dangerous -- they make you forgot the big picture," he said.


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