Linux: Ten years old and ready for business

Linux has come a long way since its creator Linus Torvalds unveiled the open source operating system 10 years ago. But is it...

Linux has come a long way since its creator Linus Torvalds unveiled the open source operating system 10 years ago. But is it ready for serious business applications?

While the public momentum of Linux has only really built up speed in the past few years, the OS has been residing in the labs of universities and corporate research departments since its inception a decade ago.

In the commercial world, following the acquisition of the Unix arm of Santa Cruz Operation by Linux stalwart Caldera, IBM's decision to develop Linux across all its hardware platforms has propelled the technology back into the limelight.

Figures produced by analyst organisation IDC show 27% of servers shipped last year were Linux-based. Some industry insiders believe the operating system has the potential to rival the might of Microsoft Windows while PC companies have been considering their Linux strategies for some time.

Dell started shipping the Linux operating system on its desktop computers a year ago. At the beginning of August it announced it was withdrawing Linux from the machines citing a "lack of demand for Linux on PCs".

Neil Ward-Dutton, principal analyst at industry watcher Ovum is unsurprised by the computer supplier's actions. "Dell's decision is significant because Linux on the desktop is completely pointless," he said.

Ward-Dutton points out that Windows has such a hold in this arena that there would be little point changing operating systems.

He noted that there would have to be a very compelling reason for a business to discard Windows in favour of Linux on desktop PCs. Ward-Dutton also points out that Linux would have to become the predominant desktop OS for information and data exchange with partners and suppliers to work.

Dan Kusnetsky, vice president of system software at analyst organisation IDC has a similar opinion. Speaking to Computer Weekly earlier this month he said, "The most popular personal productivity applications are not available for Linux even though other packages are available which basically do the same thing. A typical business person is not likely to be interested in Linux on their desktop."

There are several companies that describe themselves as pure Linux companies, including Caldera, Red Hat, SuSe and VA Linux. However, Ward-Dutton believes such suppliers are not necessarily doing all they could within the industry to promote the use of the open source operating system.

But he said IBM has had a prolific Linux strategy. It has Linux on all of its servers and partnerships with most Linux companies. It teamed up with SCO, prior to its acquisition by Caldera, some years ago to work on Project Monterey, initially the development of a 64-bit Unix-based OS based on IBM's AIX and SCO's UnixWare. The result however, was AIX 5L - an operating system the company claimed as "the next generation in Unix operating systems".

Linux is extremely important to IBM at the moment. "It's [Linux] a strategic direction that we've taken," explained Andy Hoiles, IBM's Linux manager for the Northern region. "We've invested in excess of $1 billion in Linux initiatives across the world. Linux is critical to us."

It could take some time before Linux is commonplace across the IT infrastructure. But Ovum's Ward-Dutton believes the open source operating system is about to make big waves in the embedded mobile application space.

"Embedded Linux is a big thing at the moment because people are looking to make mobile devices smarter," he said. "Linux enables you to get mobile applications up and running quite quickly."

Linux vendor Red Hat signed an agreement with mobile software developer 3G Lab at the end of July to do just this. The pair will work together to design and develop what they are describing as the "first open source real time operating system" for GPRS and 3G mobile devices. It will be based on Red Hat's open source embedded real time operating system eCos.

"If mobile operators and mobile phone manufacturers are going to be able to customise these devices to user needs, there needs to be much more openness, flexibility and modularity in the software device," commented Steve Ives, chief operating officer of 3G Lab.

The vision of the Linux vendors and the position the OS is destined for, at least in the short term, should become clearer this week when Caldera hosts its first annual conference and exhibition, Forum 2001. The company purchased the server and services business of SCO in May, and this will be the first time the company will have the opportunity to detail its future open source strategy.

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