Linux has been an overnight phenomenon, but it is yet to penetrate the mission-critical market, says Danny Bradbury
Where did Linux come from?
Linux is an operating system that was started 10 years ago by Finnish student Linus Torvalds a university project. The system, which offers many of the same features as the Unix OS, has now become a huge industry force. It is developed under the GNU Public License - a software licence designed to enable software to be distributed freely, which makes source code openly available.
Can you explain Linux's fame?
The primary reason for Linux's rise to fame is a combination of the open nature of the code and the rising industry resentment of Microsoft. Microsoft's dominance of the desktop with Windows was compounded during the mid-to-late Nineties by the rising market share of its Windows NT product on the server. This dominance, together with the proprietary nature of Microsoft's code, has caused some vendors to look for alternatives. Linux was the perfect option.
What are its target markets?
The Linux market breaks down into three main areas. The server area is the main market for the system, while the desktop and personal digital assistant (PDA) sectors have proven to be auxiliary areas. Linux on the desktop has been spectacularly unsuccessful, not surprising given that Unix on the desktop has been a niche market at best. Corel, which did its best to promote Linux on the desktop, has recently announced its decision to sell off its Linux distribution operation, due to a low takeup.
Linux also faces challenges on the PDA circuit. It's not immediately clear why anyone would want to run Linux on such a system, especially in a market that is already dominated by Palm, with Microsoft's Windows CE in second place. One area where the open source system could make the grade is in embedded systems, where small-footprint systems are needed and where standard graphical user interfaces aren't all that important.
What are its limitations?
One of the major problems for Linux in the e-commerce sector is its immaturity. True, Windows NT has been around for roughly the same amount of time (NT was released in summer 1993, while Linux made its version 1.0 debut in 1994), but Microsoft has had a huge development drive behind it, geared heavily towards the corporate market at the server level. Linux has largely been developed by enthusiasts, who haven't always been as focused on the corporate server market.
Consequently, implementations of Linux in transaction-based e-commerce systems with custom application logic are relatively scarce. Instead, Linux is mainly used in infrastructure systems like email and static Web servers. Another problem is that Linux's applications base has traditionally been much smaller than Windows NT's, although this is now changing as more vendors pitch in with product support.
Who are the major players?
The major companies in the Linux market include Red Hat, VA Linux, Caldera and TurboLinux. Most of these companies started out with basic Linux distributions, making money out of support packages, but many are now expanding into high-value areas. These include e-commerce application servers and remote online administration.
Are Linux skills scarce?
For once, skills are not in short supply. The great thing about Linux is that it's easy to get hold of and relatively cheap. Not only that, its small footprint means that it can be installed on low-specification PCs. Consequently, it's easy to train in, and end-user experiences suggest that it's cheaper to recruit Linux operators than systems administrators for more established Unix systems such as Solaris.
Pick up a penguin: Linux 2.4
The Linux 2.4 system kernel was recently announced, after a long wait. It offered some enhancements on the desktop, such as increased peripheral support and support for the Firewire desktop data transfer standard, but most of the new features were at the server level, and aimed at corporate users. Examples include support for more nodes in a clustered environment - the system is now optimised for eight-way symmetric multiprocessing, with support for up to 32 processors. It also has the ability to address up to 64Gb of memory, making it easy to run large, fast databases on Linux systems. This brings Linux somewhat closer to the high-end, mission-critical market, but it will still take end-users some time to accept the system, and support has to be built into applications to make the multiprocessor enhancements useful.