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The dominance of Microsoft, the demise of proprietary operating systems and the failure of various versions of Unix to deliver enterprise computing have characterised the face of computing over the last 10 years.
When Linux first appeared, it was dismissed as a tool for the techno geeks and followed other attempts to create alternatives to Microsoft such as BEOS and Coherent. Yet now it is being readied for mission-critical enterprise environments.
In the past Linux has forged a niche as an operating system suited for IT infrastructures such as the Apache Web server. Over the last six months Linux vendors have tried hard to push Linux further into the enterprise. Red Hat, for instance, is shipping Advanced Server and announced a partnership to certify its distribution Linux for the Oracle 9i database on Dell server hardware. Distributors including Suse, Caldera and TurboLinux have combined to bring forward United Linux, an initiative designed to encourage software suppliers to produce Linux applications. The first operating systems based on UnitedLinux are due to ship by October 2002.
The benefits to the business
Despite the home enthusiast tag that has often been applied to Linux, there are an increasing number of Linux boxes appearing in companies from the low-end of the SME market to multi-national organisations with highly trained IT staff.
According to Andy Hoiles, Linux business manager for EMEA Northern region at IBM, "the reason Linux has started proliferating is because it is very stable." He says that once it became apparent to some of the decision makers in business that Linux servers were achieving constant uptime they were prepared to bring in more servers.
Cost is another factor, even in the largest enterprises. Businesses simply pay for the distribution media, the manuals and access to support and training. Given that most computer science degrees are conducted on Unix based systems, using Linux requires no retraining, as administration tasks are almost identical between the two. It also runs on relatively cheap commodity Intel hardware.
New Linux developments are intended to scale the operating system from single processor servers to servers configured with 2-8 Intel processors, currently the target of both Microsoft and Sun.
Scott Harrison, director of Northern Europe at Red Hat, says: "Linux is now moving out of the infrastructure and into application servers, database servers and more mainstream server environments in the 2-8 way Intel space." He says Red Hat's goal with its Advanced Server version of Linux is to provide a viable alternative to Sun.
The UnitedLinux initiative has concentrated on working with software suppliers to ensure that applications will scale and run on servers configured with 2-8 processors. SAP, Computer Associates, IBM and Borland are among a number of suppliers supporting United Linux.
Don't spoil the flavour
Under the terms of the Linux licence agreement, all source code must be put back into the public arena allowing both of the Linux camps to draw on the development work of the other, thus ensuring that while release dates will not be aligned, features and capabilities will.
This is an area where both camps must convince their customers of their commitment to open source and of the integrity of the code they place in the public domain. Many people still remember how quickly the various flavours of Unix began to diverge during the 1980s and as a result, both failed to live up to their promise of a unified environment.
Another measure on which all the Linux vendors are agreed upon is that they also need to show more stability in their release cycles. With the desktop Linux, development and distribution of which will still continue, release cycles can be as many as three per year. This means that systems get outdated quickly and given corporate attitudes to frequent updates, would disqualify Linux from many corporate IT plans.
Enterprise strength Linux will be reduced to one upgrade every year or even every 15 months. Its feature set will be clearly targeted at that enterprise sector but vendors generally agree that they will use desktop Linux to trial potential new features where appropriate.
This is also critical for the independent software vendor community who are forced, at present, to validate their applications on every version of every operating system. With just two enterprise Linux platforms releasing one upgrade per year, many ISVs can lower development and support costs.
Who else is choosing Linux?
Providing that Red Hat and UnitedLinux can both work together and commit to putting their source code back into the public domain to ensure continuity and standardisation, Linux should be able to establish a foothold in the data centre. Sun would appear to be the initial loser here, but it could take many years before Linux is truly a mainstream server environment.
Martin Hingley from IDC does not consider Linux a Unix killer as the development of the core software for corporate servers will take time to develop and validate. "IT managers need to be convinced that Linux has all the components and support required before they will place it at the core of their business and that takes time," he said.
However, between 2002-2006 IDC predicts Linux servers will become more popular in business, more than doubling from 5% to 12% in terms of market value. For the same period IDC predicts traditional Unix servers will rise from 45% to 47%. Given the lower cost of Linux servers compared to traditional Unix hardware the figures represent a potentially massive increase in the number of enterprise Linux servers.
To the data centre and beyond
Clearly Linux is making inroads into the data centre. The latest developments from Red Hat and the UnitedLinux imitative should provide the necessary stimulus for application developers to produce Linux server software. IDC is predicting more demand for Linux in the coming years but whether users will buyLinux to run their application servers or simply for Web infrastructure remains to be seen.