|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|
|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.
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.”
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.
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.