Challenges of switching to Linux systems

Gartner finds that early adopters of Linux face lingering uncertainties.

Gartner finds that early adopters of Linux face lingering uncertainties.

As enthusiasm for Linux becomes tempered by complexity and management issues, key decision makers in large investment banks face a variety of challenges concerning Linux.

Gartner surveyed seven large investment banks in Europe, the US, Canada and Australia to discover their opinions about Linux.

Although this informal survey does not have a statistical relevance, the discussions reveal underlying attitudes, expectations, the degree of fulfilment and disappointments.

The main attitude of these knowledgeable IT executives, who wield considerable influence in deployments, was that much effort still needs to be applied to the full technology, cost and support model, and that there are several lingering uncertainties.

Most of the early deployments in web-facing or number-crunching applications have done the job well. However, in some complex cases IT departments had to apply internal skills, talent and resources in conjunction with the distributors’ or open source community knowledge.

Key issues in 2002 were CPU performance, server cost reduction and platform consolidation. Many of the deployments were replacements of old Sun hardware, where the gains in cost reduction on hardware and maintenance using Linux on x86 servers were dramatic.

In 2004, there is a sense that we are entering a new phase of deployments. The kernel has been improved, but most systems still remain on older versions (Linux kernel version 2.4), which originally implemented memory management and scheduling poorly. In addition, system configurations are expanding to include large, network-based storage with storage area networks.

Also, many early adopters, as typified by these respondents, have continued to buy Intel-compatible hardware, slotting servers into clusters and racks, where the management problem has escalated. As server sprawl has increased, IT organisations face the challenge of managing the systems efficiently. Consequently, tools capable of fast dynamic server provisioning and resource allocation, diagnostics, and problem and application programming interface compatibility resolution are in demand.

Although some of these tools are coming onto the market, many of them are emerging from the Unix market where suppliers have commercially licensed products for their own architectures at Unix pricing.

Another issue that emerged is that of continued server sprawl contrary to consolidation trends.

Some users reported having hundreds of Linux servers to manage. Moreover, as these systems were rolled out to trading and other critical applications, IT organisations had to use datacentre best practices, such as disaster recovery, data and synchronised mirroring, back-ups, high availability, diagnostic tools and instrumentation. These measures have become as important for these Linux systems as for Unix platforms.

Finally, the kernel stability and security factor emerged. Earlier simple systems near the network edge were less troublesome with regard to the kernel. As applications and databases increase, the kernel’s ability to scale and maintain application compatibility from release to release comes into question. Tools to provide new images of kernel releases while maintaining configuration and library compatibility are also of concern.

These are signs of the relative maturity of Linux: it is a fast-evolving environment with many technology components at different levels of maturity at a point in time.

Gartner has warned that the total cost of ownership is not likely to remain an endless treasure as system complexity increases.

In fact, one survey respondent was sceptical that eight-way configurations and beyond will have redeemable benefits purely as a consequence of Linux.

Linked with the technology issues is the role of the Linux distributor. Investment and universal banks are highly coveted as a market among system suppliers: they have deep technology skills; have big IT budgets; are test-beds for new technologies; and can guide other users on adoption.

However, the survey respondents were also clear about what they expect from their strategic support partners. The Linux distributor is the operating system expert, patch manager, security guardian and code integrator, but platform suppliers such as IBM, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard were the first line of trusted partners.

Most of the businesses Gartner spoke to were struggling with the new model that includes the Linux distributor. When the distribution was relatively inexpensive and used in pilot phases, concerns about managing a complex and increasingly mission-critical environment were less pressing issues. With growing ambitions to deploy Linux widely, a new element emerged: the relationship with the predominant operating system distributor Red Hat and dealing with the subscription service.

Gartner believes the roles of the distributor, the platform suppliers and other service providers will continue to be marked by tension and that the operating system business model is not viable for building a long-term sustaining, high-growth company.

In deploying Linux, many of these firms are aware that a significant support burden still rests with them. An example is the integration and testing of an operating system – a burden that was acknowledged to continue at least through 2006. However, the burden is inextricably bound to the Linux distributor.

Although many interviewees told Gartner of their frustration in dealing with Red Hat, most conceded that Red Hat has emerged to assume a mature role in the enterprise. If these firms were not institutional behemoths, they would pay pretty much whatever Red Hat demanded in subscription support services.

Nevertheless, because of the critical impact of the operating system on everything deployed above it, investment banks seem willing to pay a premium for dedicated Red Hat engineers onsite. However, as the software stack gets more complex, a common understanding has emerged.

Linux distributors are needed primarily to clarify problem responsibility in the stack, effect change management and deliver enhancements to evolve the operating system. Most problems are solved by platform suppliers at the first and second levels, and many at the third level as well.

Red Hat becomes an insurance policy to ensure that kernel bugs do not become persistent. Wall Street also recognises that it needs help in the midst of operating system release churn. It has let the distributors know that rapid release cycles are not welcome. Thus, Red Hat has already proclaimed its "development sandbox" to be Fedora (an open community collaborative version), and its enterprise versions are moving to a 24-month cycle, much as Unix has.

The ultimate concern of these financial organisations is not to be overly reliant on any one party. Indeed, as the equation gets more complicated when the stack is configured with open-source products like JBoss, Apache, MySQL and others, IT organisations will bear a greater cost

burden for the integration, deployment and evolution of IT services based on open-source technologies. The platform suppliers are beginning to note the changes and formulate advanced sets of services to deal with higher layers in the stack.

George Weiss is a vice-president at analyst firm Gartner


Challenges faced

  • Technology and stability
  • Linux distributors’ roles
  • Service and support
  • Real costs of technology.

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