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Linux in the Enterprise



While most companies are far from ready to make Linux a corporate standard, a few large organizations are using it to do serious work.
By Barry Nance

In the cost-conscious world of enterprise business automation, what could be better than a free or nearly free operating system? The question is more complex than you might think at first glance and, unfortunately for Linux advocates, the answer doesn’t always point to Linux. However, a few enterprises are piloting and in some cases already using Linux as the basis for vertical, run-your-business-on-it applications.

The enterprises giving Linux a try include Amerada Hess, Burlington Coat Factory, Cendant Corporation, BF Goodrich, the LA Times and the city of Medina, Washington. For these organizations, saving money is a common theme. In addition, characteristics like high performance and reliability are also high on the list of goals for Linux. To achieve these goals, people are deliberately going outside their comfort zones to expose themselves to different ways of thinking about operating system purchases, installation and support.

In a recently-released IDC study of 780 non-IT (i.e., business community) managers, 77 people said they planned in the future to explore the use of Linux or actually use Linux as a business automation platform. The previous year’s study had only 14 such responses. Dan Kusnetsky, Program Director of Operating Environments and ServerWare at IDC, says that about 30 of those respondents planning to look at Linux are in large organizations. However, Kusnetsky indicated that Linux is finding its way mostly into research, scientific, engineering and Internet-oriented companies. Its use by large organizations is still fairly rare.

The reasons for using or avoiding Linux in an enterprise are many. On the one hand, Linux is inexpensive to buy, reasonably small and fast, based on open standards and highly vendor-neutral. On the other hand, it has almost no track record as a serious business platform, has about the same ongoing administrative costs as UNIX and requires that you give some training to administrators, developers and users who likely are already well-versed in UNIX or Windows NT.

For some, an antipathy towards Microsoft makes Linux look attractive. However, be careful about letting emotions, especially negative ones, affect your business decisions. Your job isn’t to keep Microsoft from conquering the world. Your job is to conquer the world yourself, using whatever tools are right for the job.

Linux’s low initial cost is only a small part of the story and, for many enterprises, may not be a factor at all. Because initial expenses such as hardware acquisition, operating system licenses and development costs are amortized over the entire life of the system, initial expenses have relatively little effect on the overall cost/benefit picture. During a five or ten year period, the ongoing operational expenses and ongoing actual realized benefits will determine the system’s payback value.

In the profiles that follow, we uncover three enterprises’ experiences with Linux. We also reveal why a fourth enterprise chose Solaris over Linux for its new application environment.

Organization: Amerada Hess, New York City
Assignment: Convert the company’s 3-D seismological analysis application to a low cost platform.
Solution: Red Hat Software Inc.’s Linux

Amerada Hess’ 3-D seismographic analysis software used to run on expensive AIX-based RS/6000 SP2 computers in the company’s Houston offices. Now it runs on Linux, installed on 96 network-clustered Dell workstation model 410 machines. The 96 Linux nodes act in parallel across a Fast Ethernet LAN to calculate and graph millions of data points. Jeff Davis of Amerada Hess, who says replacing the hardware and software saved from twenty to fifty times the expense of the RS/6000s, is pleased with the switch.

The 3-D seismographic analysis software, custom written by Amerada Hess programmers, produces underground graphical models that start at the ocean floor and go down about 30,000 feet. Because it was already a UNIX application, porting the code to Linux took only about a week, says Davis. He knows the programming effort and time to port the code to Windows NT would have been significantly greater.

Moreover, his evaluations show that Linux has better remote administration tools and much better performance than Windows NT. The icing on the cake for Davis is that Linux requires less memory than NT to do the same job.

Tongue-in-cheek, he points out that Microsoft wouldn’t be able to reduce the size and complexity of Windows NT to a level commensurate with just the 3-D seismographic analysis software. Customizing the programming of Windows NT for a single customer just doesn’t happen. However, having the source code for Linux means Amerada Hess could make slight modifications to the operating system to reduce its memory usage and increase its performance. For example, Davis says, the programmers changed the size of tape buffers and extracted unnecessary operating system modules from memory. The result is a streamlined platform on which the 3-D seismographic analysis software runs extremely well.

On Linux, Davis reveals, the cost of running the application is dramatically less not only because the hardware’s inexpensive but because administering Linux is far easier than administering AIX. The UNIX-like nature of Linux made for few familiarization issues, Davis says, and he’s especially happy that Red Hat supplies excellent software management utilities with its brand of Linux. Furthermore, Davis feels that the occasional Linux upgrade is a snap to perform, involving only a simple rebuild of the kernel and straightforward configuration of the operating system.

Davis freely admits that the switch to Linux caused a few headaches, but says they were quickly eliminated. The biggest problem was intermittent connectivity errors with the cheap Ethernet adapters the company had bought for the Dell machines. The infrequent but maddening errors happened when Linux machines encountered difficulty with Ethernet switch negotiation. Replacing the Ethernet adapters with Intel and 3COM hardware and using different driver software cured the problem.

Davis likes using the support of the Linux community to answer his questions and help solve his problems. He describes how he can e-mail a question to the author of a particular operating system component and feel confident that he’ll get an informed, direct reply. “Try getting a personal reply from the developers of any other operating system,” he quips. For spelunking in the operating system’s dimmer recesses, Davis also likes the diagnostic tools that come with Red Hat Linux.

The Amerada Hess Linux machines are more than calculation engines. Some of the Dell computers also act as file and print servers, via NFS. In the future, Davis thinks Linux will subsume a number of other general functions within the company, including DNS and Web serving. Linux mindshare is growing within the company, says Davis, and it’s opened management’s eyes to new possibilities. Davis often hears questions such as, “Can application ABC also run on Linux?” or “Does Red Hat support doing XYZ on Linux?” The company presently uses AIX, IRIX, Solaris and Linux, but he sees AIX and IRIX going away over time.

Organization: Burlington Coat Factory, Burlington, N.J.
Assignment: Give local retail stores a low cost, high performance price-lookup application on a platform the company can easily add other applications to.
Solution: Red Hat Software Inc.’s Linux

Looking up the price of a coat or other apparel product is a common task in Burlington Coat Factory’s retail stores. To make the job quicker and less expensive, the company’s in the process of converting the lookup task’s automation from dumb terminals connected to Sun Microsystems Inc. SPARC-based machines with SunOS 4.1 to Dell PCs running Red Hat Linux. Mike Prince, Chief Information Officer at Burlington Coat Factory, says Burlington’s conversion effort involves installing Linux on 1,150 computers in its 250 stores, an effort that won’t be complete for another 6 to 12 months. The $1 million-plus project is the largest Linux retail installation announced by a U.S. company.

Burlington serves up most of the other applications in each store via browser-based Internet technology over a new frame relay network, says Prince, and the Linux migration won’t affect those applications. Similarly, the point-of-sale systems are older PCs running MS-DOS, a configuration Burlington intends to keep until it finds or builds a Linux-based POS system.

The clients for back-office and inventory applications are either radio frequency handheld scanners or dumb terminals. The price lookup database itself is a keyed index file containing about a million records. Prince plans to replace the dumb terminals with Pentium-based PCs but hasn't yet decided whether to scrap the SPARC machines or install Linux on them. Nonetheless, he believes, switching to Linux from SunOS won’t be as painful as it would be from a Windows environment. While the first target application is price lookup, Burlington would like to deploy other Linux-based applications to each store.

Prince’s plan initially uses Linux as a client, but later migrations will additionally use Linux in a server role. For example, Linux will supply printer sharing services as well as NFS services to cash register PCs in each store. The server machines, which will likely be identical to the client computers, will also perform end-of-day in-store processing in addition to sharing printers and files. One of Prince’s eventual goals is to have some load balancing within the company’s larger outlets.

“We’ve encountered no real problems along the way except for the availability of Linux application software for what we want to do in the future,” mused Prince. He said the conversion is going smoothly and has easily overcome the few connectivity and wiring problems that have cropped up. Burlington’s handheld RF scanner vendor, Telxon Corporation, gave Prince a momentary scare with the announcement Telxon would support only Windows NT and Solaris in the future, but the vendor rethought its strategy and produced a Linux port of its software just in time for Burlington’s rollout of Linux.

The in-store time and attendance application, from the Simplex subsidiary IMB, is a tougher nut to crack. Burlington currently runs the application on SunOS, but IMB plans to support only Windows NT in the future. Prince has no resolution to the problem as yet, and he is diligently looking for a Linux-based time and attendance application. He says a browser-based software product would suit him just fine.

Organization: City of Medina, Wash.
Assignment: Computerize Medina’s documents and records on an extremely tight budget.
Solution: Caldera Systems Inc.’s OpenLinux

City Hall in Medina, Washington, like most city halls across the nation, is quietly drowning in paper. Its allowance for capital improvements is also typical - the budget’s tight. Medina (the home of Bill Gates, incidentally) couldn’t afford a document management system costing $75,000 and upwards. Instead, it chose to automate the storage of city records, which includes anything in a city hall file cabinet, with a Linux-based solution costing about $27,000.

The city contracted with Archive Retrieval Systems, headed by President Bill Campbell, to install and configure the document management system. It recently (July 1999) went into production, and Campbell says the city is already realizing considerable savings. The document imaging system is the only application running on Linux now, but the city plans to use Linux for file and print serving in the not too distant future. Eventually, the same Linux machines will also handle IP routing, IP address assigning and e-mail serving.

The new document imaging system scans paper records and stores the result on write-once CD-ROM disks. A Linux server holds the digital documents, while a Linux client manages the image scanning device. Campbell says the scanning device client initially ran an Intel version of Solaris, but the software vendor, ViviData Inc., was able to port its scanning utility to Linux in only a week instead of its projected six to eight weeks of development time. Campbell says the system runs almost twice as fast on Linux. He adds that it’s now more robust and easier to configure.

Convincing ViviData to port its software to Linux was his biggest problem, Campbell says. Minor problems have included some glitches between Linux and the hardware, such as occasional errors in Linux’s management of the document feeder unit. Campbell says he went into the Linux source code and fixed the problem himself.

Campbell appreciates the speed, size and reliability of Linux, but he hastens to add that a “university mindset” regarding changes to the operating system is a risk that Linux users face every day. He believes VARs and resellers should shield business customers from the vagaries of multiple, geographically-dispersed programmers making changes to the operating system. He feels businesses shouldn’t be subject to a lack of programming consistency and quality, and he’s glad Red Hat and Caldera are imposing some standards of quality on Linux.

When Campbell contrasts his experiences with Linux and Windows NT problems, he says NT is far worse than Linux. He can easily imagine how problems might insidiously creep into Linux, given its community-based heritage. However, he says he fails to see how a team of Microsoft programmers could produce an operating system for which each new service pack causes headaches and unexpected behaviors that users can neither fix themselves nor easily work around.

Organization: Intelligence Data (part of Thomson Financial), Boston, MA
Assignment: Choose a reliable, robust and responsive operating system for a new financial services application.
Solution: Sun Microsystems, Inc.’s Solaris 2.6

Following the acquisition of other companies as well as some internal reorganization, Thomson Financial gave one of its Chief Technical Officers, Sean McRae, the job of developing a financial services application that combined functions previously handled by several older applications. Linux appeared briefly on McRae’s radar screen as a possible candidate platform for the new application, but it dropped off quickly for a number of reasons.

He initially considered Linux because of its low cost and the IT community’s growing awareness of Linux. However, he selected Solaris because he’s chosen Sun Microsystems hardware and feels Solaris is relatively inexpensive in relation to the cost of Sun’s computers. He also suspects Sun’s Solaris is a better platform for applications running on Sun’s computers than Linux.

McRae sees Windows NT and Solaris as the application platform market leaders right now.

Linux support, from McRae’s perspective, is just emerging. He’s conservative enough to want to see a longer track record before he relies on Linux’s new support paradigm. Training is also an issue, he says, as is getting adequate professional services to build and maintain a substantial business application.

“For just a few Sun computers, Solaris is an easy choice. I’d take a harder look at Linux if I were buying fifty or a hundred servers, especially if the hardware was other than Sun’s,” McRae said. Looking at Linux in the future might make sense, he believes, but right now he realizes that he can easily take advantage of people assets within Thomson Financial who are intimately familiar with Solaris. Furthermore, he points out, Thomson has a business relationship with Sun Microsystems that allows him to buy Sun hardware and software at a discount.

McRae summarizes his decision in this way: “Bringing a new application into the world entails a number of risks, and Intelligence Data was unwilling to take on the additional risk, no matter how small, of choosing Linux as an application platform.”

An Analyst’s Opinion
Dan Kusnetsky, Program Director of Operating Environments and ServerWare at IDC, likes Linux but doesn’t feel it’ll quickly pervade corporate America anytime soon.

Ironically, however, he believes that Microsoft is responsible for much of Linux’s success. Because Microsoft has done such a good job of persuading people that ten, twenty or more inexpensive PCs can collaborate as functional servers to do the work of a single Sun Microsystems minicomputer, using Linux in that same multiple server environment becomes an approach you might contemplate, he says. “NT can’t scale as well as Linux and lacks good clustering (failover) support,” he asserts. This lends credence to the use of Linux in roles that Windows NT would otherwise occupy, such as an Oracle database server. Nonetheless, Kusnetsky feels people’s perceptions of Linux will largely limit it to peripheral roles in enterprises, introduced by Linux advocates and gurus.

“That might change,” he reflects, “if PeopleSoft or SAP were to release a Linux version of their software.” Why did Oracle port its database software to Linux? Kusnetsky believes it was good public relations for Oracle, triggered initially by programmers within Oracle who may have ported some of the code on their own, as an exercise. He adds that Oracle should run on every operating system - it’s a fundamental tool that should be completely platform neutral.
Kusnetsky’s research shows that most people who’ve put Linux to work in the business are not taking advantage of its multi-tasking abilities. For instance, they’re using Linux as a single-purpose file, print or Web server when it could be playing a greater role. He sees very rare use of Linux as a client, primarily because it has no productivity applications written for it. Running Windows applications in a pseudo-Windows environment on Linux (WINE, for example) will just get you a click and a dial tone when you call a software vendor for support and mention Linux.

Software and hardware costs typically make up only about 15% of the expenses for a vertical market application, says Kusnetsky. Staffing accounts for 50% or more of those expenses. “Saving money by getting a low-cost operating system may actually cost more in the long run,” he recognizes. Support and training costs are the real issue.

Because it’s small, fast, reliable and UNIX-like, Kusnetsky believes Linux’s strength will be in transaction processing and other server-based tasks. Highly vertical applications might be appropriate for Linux, he says, particularly if they require a great deal of computing power but the user is on a tight budget.

Finally, Kusnetsky says that people who adopt Linux need to change the way they think about support. “You need to be able to work with the Linux community,” he says, “and some people may not be comfortable with that.”

Copyright 2012 Network Testing Labs


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