Linux legitimacy

With its grassroots legacy, Linux has captured the hearts and minds of many IT professionals. But without more mainstream services and support, this hot OS may never reach mission-critical status.

 By Dan Orzech
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In this article:
AT A GLANCE: The Boeing Company
Linux shipments are on the rise
The pros and cons of Linux
Users rate the operating systems
Linux milestones
Read all about it!
Linux has been generating quite a buzz lately. Its unusual development team-- thousands of volunteer programmers collaborating over the Internet--and reputation for reliability have made the UNIX-like operating system the subject of recent articles in U.S. News & World Report The Wall Street Journal, as well as a cover story in Fortune magazine. Intel and Netscape have sunk money into Red Hat Software, the operating system's largest commercial distributor. Apple Computer Inc., IBM, Oracle Corp., and Sun Microsystems Inc. all recently announced ports. And Applix Inc., Ardent Software, Corel Corp., Dell Computer Inc. and Informix Corp. have all jumped on the Linux bandwagon.

Find out what applications run on Linux:

Internet, networking, and e-commerce
Office productivity tools office
Scientific and mathematics
CAD and graphics
A lot of IT managers, however, are still not convinced Linux is ready for the big time. Chuck Klabunde, for example, a site operations manager at Seattle-based Boeing Co., believes Linux may be useful in small applications, but doesn't see it unseating the tried-and-true operating systems already in use at the aerospace giant. "It doesn't have the things we require to run an enterprise," Klabunde says, "like hot-pluggable boards for servers and high-availability cluster failover."

AT A GLANCE: The Boeing Company

The company: Seattle-based aerospace giant Boeing has 232,000 employees and 1997 revenues of $45.8 billion.

The problem: To determine the viability of Linux as a part of Boeing's computing infrastructure.

The solution: A research team charged with examining how Linux is already being used at Boeing and where else it might be useful.

How Linux is used: Boeing currently uses Linux as file, X-Windows, and Web servers in various departments. One research group used Linux-based PCs as the basis for a research lab that saved the company an estimated $50,000. To determine whether cluster computing can handle the serious number crunching required to build new airplanes, researchers in the Applied Research and Technology group are using a 16-processor Linux cluster.

This doesn't mean Linux is not being used at Boeing. In fact, says one Boeing engineer, speaking privately, Linux is "scattered all over" the company. That's part of the reason Boeing has assigned a team, including Klabunde, to examine how the operating system is already being used at Boeing and where else it might be useful. Even Klabunde cheerfully admits, "we don't really know how much it's being used at Boeing."

The company does know that various departments are using Linux for file and Web servers, and some Boeing engineers are playing around with the operating system at home. Instead of buying commercial X-terminals, one Boeing research group used Linux-based PCs to build a research lab, saving the company an estimated $50,000. And in Klabunde's own division at Boeing, the Applied Research and Technology group, researchers are using a 16-processor Linux cluster to see if cluster computing can handle the serious number crunching required to build new airplanes.

"We don't really know how much Linux is being used at Boeing," says Chuck Klabunde, The Boeing Co. site operations manager.
A boom in Linux

What's going on at Boeing with Linux is similar to what's happening at oil services and measurement systems provider Schlumberger Ltd., at Xerox Corp., at the Eastman Kodak Co., and at many other large corporations. Linux is finding growing acceptance as a Web server, as a file server, and for lots of other departmental-level applications. It's "seeping its way into the corporate infrastructure," says David Sims, a Linux supporter who works as a technical manager in Schlumberger's Information Technology group.

While Linux is--for the most part--creeping into mainstream IT shops through the back door, it's also made it's way into a few mission-critical applications. Since mid-1997, for example, a $13.5 million Linux-based system has handled much of the mail sorting at the U.S. Postal Service. In post offices across the country, more than 900 scanners grab the addresses from letters--12 of them each second--and feed the information to an OCR (optical character recognition) system running on a bank of 13 Linux-based Pentium Pro 200Mhz processors.

Linux is popular for a number of reasons: It's cheap, it's stable, and there's plenty of inexpensive or free software available. According to a mid-1998 survey by research firm Datapro Inc., Linux topped NT and Solaris in the performance, reliability, and total cost of ownership categories. (See chart, "Users rate the operating systems") The 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. Some users report that it's faster than Sun's Solaris for certain applications, and while other operating systems like Microsoft's Windows NT seem to require periodic rebooting, Linux, say users, just keeps on running.

Perhaps because of this, Linux use has boomed in the last year. Shipments of Linux for use on servers jumped almost 212% in 1998, a faster growth rate than that seen by any other operating system, according to Framingham, Mass.-based market research firm International Data Corp. (see chart, "Linux shipments are on the rise"). Overall, IDC estimates that nearly 3 million copies of Linux shipped in 1998, which amounts to approximately 6% of the total market. And those figures doesn't take into account copies of the operating system that were downloaded for free from the Internet.

With all the popular interest in Linux, a growing number of vendors are beginning to support it. Besides all the announced ports, Silicon Graphics' high-powered new workstation will run Linux as well as Windows NT. Some vendors, including Sun Microsystems, say they're supporting Linux because of a long-standing commitment to open standards and because innovation in Linux contributes to the advancement of UNIX technology in general. Others, aware of the rising tide of acceptance for Linux, just don't want to get left behind. And for ISVs, like Sybase and Oracle, that have done ports to a dozen or more variants of UNIX over the years, a Linux port poses no big technical challenge.

This article was originally published on Feb 1, 1999
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