Support: "the key issue"
Technical support is the key issue with Linux, says Susan Blew, Wells Fargo Bank's senior VP for IT. "I can't put anything into production until there's support."
But is Linux ready for the big time? Not until real technical support is available, according to some senior IT managers. Technical support is "the key issue" with Linux right now, says Susan Blew, senior vice president for Information Technology at San Francisco-based Wells Fargo Bank. Wells Fargo, which already has some 2,700 UNIX servers from Hewlett Packard, has been evaluating Linux since early November. Blew calls Linux "promising technology," but has no plans to do anything with it at the moment. "We have to be really cautious because of the support issue," she says, "I can't put anything into production until there's support."
Linux supporters are aware of this issue. In early October, Intel Corp. and Netscape Communications Corp. sunk an undisclosed amount of money into Red Hat Software, the biggest distributor of Linux. The company plans to use the funds, says Red Hat Software CEO Bob Young, to beef up its support offerings. In the past, Red Hat Software offered a mere 90 days of telephone support. Now it will provide a range of support options, including unlimited round-the-clock telephone support for $60,000 a year.
That may not be enough for some companies. When Boeing makes a large-scale software commitment, for example, "we like to have people who will come on-site and fix things if they break," says Klabunde.
Enterprise-level support may be on its way though. IBM and Red Hat Software recently (February 1999) announced a joint partnership to provide technical support for Linux on IBM server and client systems.
|The pros and cons of Linux |
| ||Linux source code is freely available, so users can build their own device drivers, optimize the operating system for their particular needs, or fix problems themselves--or turn to the 100,000-strong Linux development community for help. |
| ||With a large number of users hunting for and fixing bugs, Linux has evolved into a highly stable operating system, which by most accounts is more reliable than competing commercial software such as Windows NT. |
| ||The price is right: Linux is available at prices ranging from around $50, for a CD-ROM and 90 days of support from companies like Red Hat Software, to free, from repositories on the Internet. |
| ||Linux is at least as fast, say most reports, and in some cases faster, than competing operating systems. |
| ||Linux lacks enterprise-level technical support. |
| ||Linux still lacks support from major enterprise players such as SAP and PeopleSoft, despite strong third-party application support. |
| ||Linux lacks key features required to run high-availability, mission-critical applications like hot-pluggable boards and cluster failover. |
While IT management wants to see a support contract that offers concrete commitments, many current users think that Linux offers something even better: Access to the programmers who wrote the code. If you have a problem with a Windows NT device driver, says John Taves, a Seattle-based computer consultant who designed the U.S. Postal Service's system, "you would never be able to talk to the engineer at Microsoft who actually wrote it." But with Linux, he says, "you find the programmer's name on the source file to the device driver, send him an e-mail, and he gets back to you the next day."
Taves, who says that the assistance users get with Linux can actually be far superior to other product support, discovered at one point that the Postal Service's scanning application was occasionally causing Linux to crash. He posted a message on the Internet asking for help, and got a response back the next day from a programmer in Italy who suggested ways to pinpoint where the problem lay. When Taves still couldn't determine the source of the crash, the Italian programmer e-mailed Linux's creator, Linus Torvalds, now working at Transmeta Corp. in Santa Clara, who isolated the bug and fixed the problem with a few changes to the Linux kernel.
The whole process, including four days of testing to make sure the problem was fixed, took "a couple of weeks," says Taves. Getting a change made to an operating system's kernel in two or three weeks is "unreal," he says. If it had been Microsoft's NT, Taves says, it might have taken two or three years.
Users rated operating systems in 18 different areas, ranging from security and product quality to application availability and future vendor viability. Linux came out on top in seven categories, including performance, reliability, and total cost of ownership, and second overall, just slightly behind IBM's AIX.
Taves is careful to point out, however, that the crash might not have happened in the first place if the system was running on NT. But, he says, most people with experience working with both operating systems say that NT is less stable than Linux.
Much of the operating system's attraction for commercial users, in fact, seems to be its stability. "Linux has benefited from 30 years of development on UNIX," says Red Hat Software's Young. "It's fundamentally a more mature technology." Cheryl Ball, a GartnerGroup analyst, adds: "The uptime and reliability of the operating system pose a product challenge to NT."
Product support is one of two things that will make or break Linux, says Ball. The other is application software. The open source Apache Web server--the most popular Web server--has run on Linux for years. But now, she says, "you're starting to see a lot of software vendors talking about porting their applications to Linux." Last September, following on the heels of ports from Oracle, Informix, and Sybase, IBM announced that it will make a version of DB2 available for Linux.
Perhaps the biggest boost will come from Sun's December  announcement that it would add ABI (application binary interface) compatibility with Linux to its Solaris operating system. That should make it easier to run the thousands of applications now available for Solaris on Linux.