Linux legitimacy

By Dan Orzech | Feb 1, 1999 | Print this Page

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.

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."

Application software

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 [1998] 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.

However, there's no sign that other major application-software vendors are rushing to jump onto the Linux bandwagon. SAP, for example, has "no plans" to support Linux now or in the near future, says a company spokeswoman, despite published rumors that the company is running a version of its applications under Linux. Neither does Peoplesoft.

Instat's Ball contends that the current Department of Justice case against Microsoft could affect the number of software packages that end up running on Linux. "If the outcome keeps Microsoft in its existing state, in its existing dominant role, then ISVs are going to stick with the dominant platform. But if Microsoft's hold on the industry gets shaken in some way, then ISVs may well consider diversifying their portfolios more rapidly."

What the future holds

There are other things holding Linux back. System administration tools, for example, are still aimed mostly at small to medium-sized IT operations. Linux distributors such as Orem, Utah-based Caldera Systems, Inc. however, are beefing up their offerings to handle the demands of large enterprises. Caldera Systems plans to offer directory services that will allow administrators to manage large numbers of users more easily, and backup tools capable of backing up large numbers of machines over a network. And while technically sophisticated users like Schlumberger's David Sims say they prefer Linux' Unix-like command line interface, both Red Hat Software and Caldera Systems now offer GUI-based system administration tools which are less intimidating to Linux novices.

Large corporate users are also hesitating to adopt Linux because of concerns that without a major company backing it, Linux may not still be around in a few years. Linux supporters say the opposite is likely to be true. "Free software actually outlives commercial software," says Professor Clay Shirky, who works with Linux at Hunter College in New York. "Look at history. DEC--which was confident in the 1970s that VMS was going to rule the world--no longer exists, but every network protocol that was written in that decade is still valid. You can still FTP; you can still Telnet; you can still send e-mail using sendmail."

Part of the skepticism, says Shirky, is that the community responsible for Linux can't be found in one physical place. It requires a cultural shift to recognize that the Linux community is on the Internet, he says, and that "communities outlast companies."

Linux milestones

January 1999: Linux kernel 2.2.0, with improved SMP support, released on January 25, 1999.
September 1998: Intel and Netscape invest in Linux distributor Red Hat Software. Red Hat Software announces beefed-up support.
September 1998: IBM announces a version of DB2 for Linux, and Sybase says it will release a Linux version of its database engine.
July 1998: Oracle and Informix announce Linux ports of their database software.
April 1998: Netscape releases source for Mozilla, validating the open source model.
November 1997: Red Hat Software version 5.0 released.
July 1997: Red Hat Software version 4.2 of Linux released. First Linux distribution that installed easily, had lots of driver support, and was considered really "solid."
1991: Linus Torvald, then a computer science student at the University of Helsinki, begins writing an operating system.

It seems likely that Linux will continue to gather momentum. A new version of the kernel with improved symmetric-multiprocessing capabilities was released on January 25, 1999. Despite the existence of an X-Windowing system for Linux and the availability of software such as Corel's WordPerfect for Linux, it seems unlikely that Linux will ever be a huge presence on the desktop.

But Linux is likely to grow in strength as a server platform. Just how fast it will grow depends on whom you ask. Jon Oltsik, a senior analyst at market research firm Forrester Research, based in Cambridge, Mass., expects Linux use to continue to expand at a "steady, albeit relatively unexciting" rate. But computer book publisher and open source proponent Tim O'Reilly believes that corporate IT departments--whose computing infrastructures are already riddled with Linux--are just waiting for the operating system to get the seal of approval from major computer companies like Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard Co., and IBM. And that is already happening. Linux, predicts O'Reilly, is going to see "an explosion of corporate acceptance" in 1999. //

Dan Orzech is a Philadelphia-based writer specializing in technology. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and many computer industry publications. He can be reached at

Read all about it!

Title: Using Linux
Author: Jack Tackett and Steven Burnett
Publisher: Que, May 1998
At any decent-sized bookstore, you're likely to find several shelves groaning under the weight of thick tomes about Linux. One of the newer ones, this guide gives beginning to intermediate users everything they need to know about Linux, from UNIX basics such as the vi editor and UNIX mail to system administration and running a Linux Web server. It includes CD-ROMs with the Red Hat Software and Caldera Systems versions of Linux, and utilities from Slackware.

Title: Linux Application Development
Author: Erik Troan and Michael Johnson
Publisher: Addison-Wesley April 1998
Linux is very similar to UNIX...but different enough to trip up a programmer who relies only on a UNIX programming guide. Written by two experienced Linux developers at Red Hat Software, this book is a comprehensive reference for developing Linux applications or porting them from other operating systems.

Title:Server makers cast an eye toward Linux
Author: Carmen Nobel
Publication: PC Week Online, October 5, 1998
A look at the hardware side of the Linux equation. Led by PC maker Gateway, server manufacturers are taking a hard look at the growing Linux market.

Title: Linux Bolstered By Middleware
Author: Richard Karpinski
Publication: Internet Week, December 7, 1998
Enterprise-class transaction monitors, object request brokers, and other middleware are prerequisites to building mission-critical applications. Many of these tools are expected to be available soon for Linux.

Title: Linux catches on in small businesses--Stability, Robustness and Low-Cost Or Free Applications Seen As Keys To Acceptance
Author: Herman Mehling
Publication: Computer Reseller News, December 7, 1998
Is Linux a perfect fit for small businesses? While Linux struggles to be accepted by IT management in the Fortune 500, small businesses are starting to take a serious look at the operating system's stability, reliability--and its low cost.

Title: The Open-Source Revolution
Author: Tim O'Reilly with an introduction by Esther Dyson
Publication: from Release 1.0, November 1998
A fascinating and in-depth look not just at Linux, but at the entire open source movement and its relevance to the future of the computer industry. Well-known computer publisher Tim O'Reilly explains how open source software like sendmail, Perl, and Apache are at the heart of the Internet revolution, and how various companies--from Red Hat Software to Netscape to IBM--are making money in the open source world. Open source software, says O'Reilly, has not only radically changed the rules of the computing game, but holds the key to the next stage of the computer industry.

Linux apps


Company Product
Computer Associates InternationalIngres II
Informix Corp. Informix-SE
Inprise Corp. Interbase
Oracle Oracle8
Software AG EntireX
Sybase Inc.Open Client and Adaptive Server Enterprise

Internet, networking, and e-commerce

Company Product Functionality
Apache GroupApache HTTP Server Open-source Web server
(the most widely used Web server on the Net)
Arrow ArrowFree e-mail program for X-Windows
BoaBoaOpen source Web server
Caldera Systems NetWare for LinuxNetWare file, print and directory services
Excite Inc.Excite for Web ServersFree search engine software
MinivendMinivendFree shopping cart system
National Center for Supercomputing ApplicationsNCSA MosaicWeb browser
Netscape Communications SuiteSpotOpen platform for networked enterprises
PinePine 4.05 E-mail reader
IdonexRoxen Challenger 1.2Web server
VShopVShop 1.5 Integrated e-commerce solution
WNWN 2.1.5Open-source Web server

Office productivity tools

Company Product Functionality
Applix Inc.ApplixwareOffice suite
Axene Inc.XclamationDesktop publishing
Caldera SystemsStarOffice 4.0Office suite
Corel Corp.WordPerfect 8Word processing
Engineering Software Systems Corp.NexSSpreadsheet
Star Division GMBH StarOffice 5.0Office suite
Investment Intelligence Systems GroupWingzSpreadsheet

Scientific and mathematics

Company/Organization Product Functionality
The Math Works Inc. Matlab 5Software package for numerical computation
MuPAD Research GroupMuPADComputer algebra system
Free Software FoundationPSPPOpen-source statistics package

CAD and graphics

Company/Organization Product Functionality
Bentley Systems Inc. MicroStation Engineering and design software
The GIMPThe GIMPFree image manipulation program
Microform ABVarkonCAD software
MpegtvMpegTV SDKStreaming MPEG video player
Persistence of Vision Development TeamPOV-RayOpen source 3-D graphics tool