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Linux Takes a Page from the PC

There is a lot of speculation about Linux and whether and when corporate information technology (IT) departments will really begin to adopt it. While looking at recent studies on operating-system usage, it struck me that Linux bears an amazing similarity to another technology that was gradually picked up by corporate IT in the 1980s: the personal computer. Although the technology itself is different, the issues and obstacles are still the same.








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DUFF ORLEMANN

There is a lot of speculation about Linux and whether and when corporate information technology (IT) departments will really begin to adopt it. While looking at recent studies on operating-system usage, it struck me that Linux bears an amazing similarity to another technology that was gradually picked up by corporate IT in the 1980s: the personal computer. Although the technology itself is different, the issues and obstacles are still the same.

Back in the 1980s, corporate data-processing groups shunned the personal computer. They said that it was a toy and couldn’t be used for real work. Furthermore, no corporate support personnel was trained to support PCs. Most of the computing workload for large organizations was handled by mainframes and minicomputers.

Regardless of what the data-processing (DP) folks said, those who had actually bought PCs knew that they could make life at work much easier. So, they started sneaking PCs into the office. “Since my PC can emulate a terminal,” the thinking went, “the DP people won’t ever know that my terminal is mothballed in the broom closet.”

When enough personal computers were supporting the work of a particular business unit, the unit director or vice president would call up the director of data processing and tell him to either support the darned PCs or watch the cost of supporting them get slashed from the DP department’s budget. It wasn’t long before the DP department saw the value of these systems and started including them in their plans.

Leaping to Today

The company I work for, International Data Corp., spends a fair amount of time looking at how technologies like Linux are being adopted in the corporate world, and our numbers show a similar pattern to the PC. The corporate IT organization is focusing on familiar technologies. In a study conducted at the end of 1999, we found that nearly half of IT budgets were dedicated to Microsoft’s Windows NT. More than one-third were evaluating Windows 2000, and only about 22 percent were evaluating Linux. An encouraging result for Linux was that 80 percent said they were open to the operating environment.

The reason that Windows NT/Windows 2000 are so high on the budgetary list is that Microsoft has convinced organizations to insert Windows NT/ 2000 workgroup or departmental servers between their Windows desktops and Unix business-unit servers. The Unix servers sit between workgroups/ departments and the corporate mainframes. Linux will have to earn its way onto this corporate short list over time.

Our study found that although IT people say their purchasing decisions are guided by things like reliability, performance, price/performance, and features, the reality of the situation is that corporate standards, not technological merit, really matter most.

More recent studies show that end users are leading organizations toward Linux. Experts are bringing Linux into the organization to handle certain functions without the knowledge or approval of the corporate IT organization. Linux is often asked to support Web infrastructure, high-performance technical computing, and digital content creation. While it might be supporting the Web front end, Linux seldom shows up running business or mission-critical applications.

IT May Not Own the Web

Corporate IT departments are responsible for back-office systems, front-office systems, and systems supporting remote field sales and support personnel. Web sites were seen as an extension to sales or marketing activities rather than a part of this core infrastructure. In many organizations, this meant that the creation and support of the organization’s Web site fell to the sales or marketing organization. This is what opened the door for Linux.

The people who put these Linux systems together often do not have a history of working with mainframes or midrange systems. Rather than building the Web site on a few large multifunctional systems, they often build computer farms where each system supports either a single function or a small number of functions. This allows them to select the best system for the job at hand.

Support of functional server configurations explains the findings of a recent IDC Linux server survey. This study showed that the average Linux server is a single-processor, Intel-based system supporting less than 500 MB of memory and about 10 GB of disk storage. It also showed that Linux was primarily used to support Web-server software (42 percent of respondents), file/print-server software (26 percent), e-mail software (23 percent), and DNS-server software (25 percent). All other uses showed up less than 15 percent of the time. This may be because Linux grew up on the Web and has a track record of success supporting Web infrastructure tools.

Will Linux Ever Go Mainstream?

For Linux to move beyond the functional server category and become part of the corporate IT infrastructure, some things need to change.

* Linux must be seen as one of the strategic OS platforms for major hardware and software suppliers.

* Major applications (not just their functional equivalents) must be made available on Linux.

* Linux must learn to scale beyond the current four to eight processors. This need is more for the IT organization to feel comfortable with a Linux choice rather than to support what people are actually using Linux for today.

* Commercial-quality clustering and high-availability software must be made available for Linux.

* Management software that allows Linux configurations to self-manage and self-heal must be made available.

* IT management must hear of organizations successfully using Linux for a wide range of computing solutions and having saved or made a great deal of money because of this choice.

It’s clear that many of these things are occurring now. IDC expects paid or revenue shipments of Linux to move into the number two position behind Windows on the desktop market and maintain its hold on the number two position on the server market by 2004. If the PC analogy bears out, the future of Linux looks very bright indeed.




Dan Kusnetzky is program vice president for International Data Corp.’s System Software Research Services. He can be reached at dkusnetzky@idc.com.

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