Making the move to Linux

Cash-strapped SMBs may well consider making the move to Linux-based systems

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) in manufacturing are not generally considered to be at the cutting edge of IT. Strapped for cash in a hostile world market, IT systems are often way down the list of priorities for investment and in many cases IT skills are provided by those in other roles who have the aptitude.

Having said that, the numbers of SMB manufacturers turning from UNIX to open source operating systems seems to be increasing. One thing driving this is the increasing availability of ERP application suites ported to Linux.

A survey by research group Peerstone at the end of 2004 showed that two thirds of ERP users were running their software on UNIX platforms, but, while UNIX was still dominant in terms of numbers, trends were running against it. In short, UNIX – and Windows too – is losing ground to Linux variants. At the time 20% of ERP users expected to ditch UNIX and most of those were going towards open source. That fact is recognised by numerous ERP suppliers, including SAP and Oracle, who have made Linux a key plank of their software roadmaps.

So, why are SMBs drifting away from UNIX towards Linux and what qualities does it possess that make it a viable choice to serve mission-critical applications?

Go back less than 10 years and UNIX ruled unchallenged in high-performance servers for core business applications. In fact, it still has the bulk of the market, but changes in recent years have begun to erode that dominance and allowed Linux to gain momentum. Key push factors in this have been the rise of the Intel architecture and a step change in the maturity of the Linux environment.

The Intel processor architecture has such a degree of standardisation and has become so widely used in business systems that it has achieved commodity status. This contrasts sharply with UNIX processors, which are unique to each server supplier, as are the many flavours of the Unix OS.

So, driven by the evolution towards commodity hardware platforms, Microsoft’s operating systems had by the turn of the millennium begun to erode UNIX dominance. Meanwhile Linux - originally derived from UNIX but able to run on Intel processors – was making headway in non-mission critical applications such as web serving, where it came to dominate.

The breakthrough year for Linux, in terms of it becoming a serious contender for high-performance application serving, was 2003. In that year version 2.6 of the Linux kernel was released, meaning the OS could now run on servers with up to 32 processors, instead of the two or four it had been limited to previously.

The advent of version 2.6 has made Linux much more reliable, scalable and robust, but what are its limits? Where can the open source OS be used in the IT stack?

“Linux can replace Unix pretty much everywhere,” says Ovum analyst Laurent Lachal. “At first Linux was more for infrastructural uses such as mail and web serving but is now being used to run application platforms for things such as SAP.”

While the multi-processor capabilities of version 2.6 have allowed Linux to gain traction in new areas, 32 processors is still not that many when you consider UNIX servers can be run with potentially thousands of linked CPUs.

“To a certain extent Linux is viable across the stack,” says Ian Brown, an analyst with Gartner. “However, there are provisos, such as availability of applications and support as well as concerns over the robustness of Linux for the highest end uses, such as back end databases. These tend to be on big, scaleable platforms in larger organizations and for large deployments many put their confidence in UNIX for back end server purposes because x86 is just not scaleable to the same extent.”

Another area where Linux cannot compete with Unix RISC platforms is in hardware management and maintenance features, such as the hard partitioning and domain controls you will not find in Linux distributions.

UNIX still has control of the highest of high-end applications but in most areas where customers are using it Linux is emerging as a viable alternative. At the same this is reflected in increasing mindshare – of users and suppliers. The result is that many perceive the tide of software history to be on the side of the open source contender.

“For a lot of companies there will be increasing amounts of software available to run on Linux,” says Brian Green, UK technical director for Novell. “Sage, Oracle, SAP, BEA and Lotus Notes are examples. Add to that the high profile advertising from IBM, HP and AMD and you can see an increasing market dynamic for Linux.”

“Also, software and hardware vendors are working together to innovate, which means costs are going down and the level of innovation is accelerating compared to Unix,” adds Green.

All that may seem a little nebulous if you’re looking for concrete benefits of switching to Linux, but there are a number of major advantages to the open source OS. The root of these is the marrying of Linux and x86 architecture.

This means cheaper hardware that is more flexible and you can now break the link between the OS and the hardware. Many businesses have lots of servers inherited from many stages in their life – which may include a number of UNIX flavours tied to specific hardware - but by standardising on Linux on Intel you can reduce those numbers dramatically and achieve a lower cost per transaction. At the same time having to deal with only one hardware platform and OS potentially cuts the cost of the skills needed to maintain the system.

For one manufacturer, ease of use has been the major advantage of moving to Linux. EWS – which employs 135 people making steel window components in Wolverhampton – was prompted to move when its core Sage ERP software was due for upgrade 18 months ago.

It had been running Sage CS3 ERP software on SCO Unix, but when Sage discontinued the product, EWS needed to find a replacement ERP system quickly. It engaged IBM partner CPiO to help it find and implement a new ERP solution. CPiO recommended moving to Sage Line 500 on Suse Linux Enterprise Server V8. Hardware is IBM eServer xSeries and the database is an IBM Informix Dynamic Server of approximately 30 Gbytes.

David Thompson is planning and logistics manager – and also looks after IT at EWS. For him the outstanding outcome of the migration is that there has been no steep learning curve and maintenance is now easier.

“We’ve not really learned any great lessons because you tend to learn more when things go wrong,” says Thompson. “This runs so well we just leave it and when we do need to do anything it’s far easier than when we used UNIX. You had to know UNIX command prompts, but now you use a browser window to do things like set up printers or users.”

You don’t have to wait for a compelling event to try Linux out, says Gartner’s Ian Brown. “Linux is easily available. You can download a copy and experiment with it. That makes it particularly good for greenfield projects where you can experiment with it on x86 boxes for free.”

That’s the route taken by another manufacturer - Shrewsbury-based automotive pressings manufacturer, Stadco. The company – which has 1,500 employees at six plants in the UK and two in Germany – is something of an early adopter and it was back around the turn of the millennium that the company decided to trial Linux as a platform for its QAD ERP software.

The company was involved in a JV that was setting up a new plant in Brazil in 2000 and this was the perfect opportunity to try the open source OS. “We had the opportunity to move to the latest version of our core apps, which were now on what we perceived to be the latest version of UNIX – which was Linux,” says group systems manager, David Lloyd.

“It proved to be a success,” says Lloyd. “If we ran into trouble we could have moved back to SCO Unix, but it didn’t fail, was robust and performed well.” From then on the firm decided that all future plants would run its ERP on top of Linux.

Now Stadco runs QAD on Linux at three of its UK plants and one in Germany. Initially it used the Red Hat distribution but has now standardized on IBM rack-mounted servers, which come with SUSE Linux.

Like EWS all migrations to date have gone without a hitch. “From our point of view it was incredibly straightforward and simple,” says Lloyd. “We have some highly talented people and they transferred their knowledge base across. We saw more problems going from Red Hat to Suse than UNIX to Red Hat.”

“At the end of the day,” says Lloyd, “There is nothing wildly esoteric or special about it. We wanted the OS to run the server safely and it just does what it says on the tin as an OS,” adds Lloyd.

EWS and Stadco’s experiences show that mid-sized companies can get great benefits from a move to Linux as a server for core applications, and that it can often be a painless experience that brings many benefits. As Stadco’s Lloyd says, for many the next version of UNIX will be Linux.

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