August 28, 2000

Linux conquers the business market

Author: JT Smith

By Alex Teodorescu

Until now, Linux has been popular mostly for academic and tech-savvy
users. But
finally, corporations are catching on to the Linux and Open Source
software
wave.

For about half a decade, a major paradigm shift has been taking place
in the
corporate tech-sphere, the technological dimension of businesses and
corporations. For a long time, technological progress within any
corporation
boiled down to either improving the LAN so users could get faster and
more
reliable access to file and print services, or overhauling the central
servers
to improve database performance. But with the advent of employee
empowerment,
e-commerce integration, and other powerful and popular business
buzzwords,
things changed abruptly for corporate tech coordinators.

Whereas
knowing how to
outsource the "tech stuff" used to be sufficient to keep a CTO job, all
out of
a sudden the board expected global e-commerce integration proposals.
Swift
market positioning meant everything, and the once mighty tech firms
that
couldn't adapt were facing the same prospects as the dinosaurs: failure
to
adapt equals extinction.

Linux fills a void

Oddly enough, in the explosive network-driven tech marketplace, the
most
successful newcomer to the corporate tech game is the one most
corporate tech
people had never even heard of two years ago: Linux. The one player
most people
saw as the market leader five years ago, Novell, is close to stopping all
development on
its flagship product, and becoming a support company for legacy
products. As the attention shifted away from file and print services to
network-driven marketing and collaboration, Novell choked. It relied on
an
unwieldy, if powerful, tech infrastructure that didn't lend itself to
the swift
changes taking place. And Novell's designated successor, Microsoft,
choked.
Badly, at that. Just how badly?

Well, Microsoft's attempts at becoming the network system provider of
choice
faltered, as its high-end system of choice, NT 4 Server, was rapidly
shown to
be unsuitable for advanced tasks. IBM and Sun were happy to fill the
high-end
needs with AIX and Solaris, respectively. At the low end, Linux rocked
the Net
world: significantly more stable and speedy than NT under all but few
hardware
configurations, setting up a Linux server, proved to be much more
cost-effective than anything Microsoft could offer. By the time NT had
stumbled
through six and a half service packs, Open Source operating systems
were ruling
the low-end and mid-range network server world. The Netcraft's surveys,
which
have persistently shown Open Source servers to run more than half of
the
Internet's webservers, must be a continuous thorn in Gates? side. In
fact, a
thorn so painful that Microsoft vainly attempted to dispel Linux myths
on its
own Web site, supposedly showing the superiority of its own software:
http://www.microsoft.com/ntserver/nts/news/msnw/LinuxMyths.asp.

But Linux continued its stride without as much as a minor hiccup as
recently
released studies show; according to an Infoworld survey, Linux has
increased
its importance for business users. It has mainly cannibalized its Unix
ancestor's market, but at the same time increased corporate awareness
of the OS
that outscores NT/2000 where it matters: cost and reliability. Some
administrators argue that its complexity makes it more difficult to
patch and
maintain, yet at the same time are often taken unaware by the frequent
security
holes in Microsoft software that often go unpatched by the Redmond
giant. The
main hurdle to broader adoption into the enterprise has often been the
lack of
accountability for problems; system admins can always rely on a Sun or
IBM
technician to turn up around the clock to remedy problems, while there
is a
lot of Microsoft certified IT staff to take care of business systems
running
Microsoft's software. But with major Linux vendors such as Red Hat,
Caldera and
SuSe stepping up to rectify that problem, it has quickly become a
non-issue. The
main focus now lies in providing tech personnel that is properly
trained, and
that knows how to bring custom-tailored Linux solutions for demanding
business
environments.

Other specialized companies, such as LinuxCare, also
provided
Linux servicing contracts that quickly removed any servicing quality
disadvantages Linux may have had. Even Linux certification programs
have begun
to appear, with Red Hat certification rapidly crystallizing as one of
the
forerunners.

High-volume use

Interestingly, one recent claim by a Windows magazine suggested that
Linux was
indeed mostly used by home or hobbyist users for low-volume,
non-demanding
Web sites, explaining its great popularity. However, for business users,
so it
was claimed, only Windows NT and 2000 provided the necessary
performance and
reliability. The proof? The main Web sites of large companies such as
Intel and
Ford were running on Internet Information Server (IIS) on Windows NT or
2000.
Therefore, MS software was supposedly more accepted in corporations, which are
more
demanding in terms of performance and reliability. What the survey
failed to
notice, however, was that many large corporate Web sites are little more
than
providers of PR material, being nothing more than a corporate
storefront and PR
machine. Very little actual demanding business is handled over those
Web sites.

In response, an Open Source software user compiled his own survey, this
time of
Web sites that have to handle consistent high load and hard (excuse the
pun)
demand: Professional adult entertainment sites. There, Open
Source
software rules supreme: nearly 87% of "smut" Web sites used the Open
Source
Apache webserver! (http://www.smutcraft.net/) But even much more
commonly
visited Web sites, such as the two most popular search engines in the
world,
Yahoo and Google, run on Open Source software.

Embrace and extend

There is, however, one specter that looms darkly on the business Linux
horizon:
Microsoft, after much huffing and puffing, has finally focused its
attention
on the corporate server-driven market. Locking the business
tech
market into Microsoft's proprietary solutions has long been a major aim
at
Redmond, and with its current software line-up, it looks like Microsoft is at
least partially succeeding. For corporate collaborative groupware,
essential in
today's business environment, Microsoft's Exchange Server running on
Windows
NT/2000 is one of the most popular solutions. Once locked into it,
corporate
environments will find it nigh-impossible to run anything but MS server
software to accommodate Exchange Server, and Windows client software
for the
Outlook front-ends. Similar situations are created at many other
segments of
the market, making it imperative for Linux supporters to adopt open
standards
wherever possible, thereby making it impossible for closed, proprietary
solutions to succeed. It is painfully obvious that if Microsoft had
succeeded
in forcing early adoption of its NT-powered webserver, it would have
quickly
led to a strategy of "embrace and extend," creating Microsoft-only
incompatibilities thereby locking the market into MS-only solutions.

The
complete success of the dominant Open Source webserver Apache, however,
ensured
such a scenario wasn't likely until Microsoft could provide an
attractive
alternative -- something which they may have done with Windows 2000.

Still, Windows 2000, the current incarnation of NT, has not been
adopted
particularly quickly by most businesses. One reason is the infamous NT
instability for early versions: Windows NT 4 was unusable until Service
Pack 3
debuted, and is currently up to its seventh incarnation with SP6a. True
enough,
Windows 2000 SP1 arrived on the scene a scant four months after Win2k
appeared
in stores. Various incompatibilities with other MS and third-party
software
have slowed it enough to allow Linux to follow up to its initial
business
success. At the moment of this writing, the pre-2.4 Linux kernels
promise to
deliver up to 64GB of RAM support, much improved multi-processor
capabilities,
better network performance, and many other improvements such as better
USB
support. If the various distributors manage to compile stable
distributions
based on 2.4 as soon as it is finalized, its corporate target audience
may
suddenly become a whole lot bigger, especially with the pricing scheme
Microsoft has introduced for Windows 2000.

Instead of having to rely
on
extremely expensive licensing schemes for Windows 2000 or Windows Me,
often
paying several hundred dollars per seat, one single copy of any Linux
distribution is enough. Instead of paying thousands of dollars for a
server
copy of Windows, or multiple times that if more than one server is needed,
no such
fees apply to Linux. Once the total cost of ownership (TCO) advantage
is added
to the more stable and secure nature of Open Source software, a clear
winner
quickly emerges.

Bright future for Linux

The future for Linux in business environments looks promising, as the
upcoming
2.4 kernel looks to provide both business-relevant features such as
much-improved scalability and support for the highest end of hardware,
as well
as desktop improvements aimed at end users. The key to success lies in
providing a middleware layer, tying together servers and clients with
reliable,
open solutions, thereby minimizing the total cost that has always been
a major
factor in enterprises. Distributors such as Red Hat, Caldera and SuSe
are
continuing their support for such middleware products, continuously
enhancing
the value of Linux for business environments; one example is Red Hat's
high-availability clustering software, Piranha.

Corporate adopters
must be
shown how Linux solutions can be at least as business-friendly as
Microsoft
products. Consistent high software quality isn't an issue, but
corporate users
usually have different needs than home or academic users. Consistently
low TCO,
flawless servicing contracts, and clean solutions for effortless
end-user
administration are only some of the requirements of business
environments. Once
corporate IT departments are finally persuaded by the inherent power,
reliability, and flexibility of Linux, traditional ultra-expensive
proprietary
corporate solutions could ultimately become yesterday's news.

Alex Teodorescu is a longtime user of Open Source software currently based in Virginia.

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