Obstacles on the road from Unix to Linux

Gartner is predicting that 2004 will be the year Linux broke into mainstream enterprise computing. Cliff Saran spoke to Gartner’s...

The writing is on the wall for traditional Unix as expensive proprietary Unix systems are replaced by commodity Linux based on Intel processors. But IT directors should tread carefully if they opt for the open-source trail, warned George Weiss, vice-president and research director at analyst firm Gartner, speaking at the organisation's Symposium in Florence.

Today’s two-, four- and eight-way symmetric multiprocessing Intel servers are offering better price/performance than Risc-based Unix systems from industry giants such as IBM, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard.

However, Weiss warned, “You need to have a best-practices approach to the deployment of open-source software.”

He urged IT managers to put in place standards for Linux architectures and the distributions used in their companies. Users also need to understand what the open-source GNU general public licence applies to, otherwise they could, inadvertently, give away their businesses’ intellectual property. “You could deploy or develop applications that compromise GPL licensing terms for open-source software,” said Weiss.

If a user developed an application that was based on an open-source application, or changed an open-source program to use it effectively within the business, those changes would qualify as open source.

“The open-source community could copy the code,” said Weiss. “If you customise a Linux distribution, the supplier is absolved of any support obligations for the distribution.”

Another problem users could face with Linux is the nature of the development process - it is a community collaboration and there is no single supplier responsible for the overall Linux roadmap. As a result, users need to do research to ensure the various components within their Linux environment - from device drivers to databases to applications - are all supported.

Weiss said, “If you intend to integrate Linux into a storage area network, you have to ensure the San drivers are built into the Linux distribution and they work.” In some cases the San drivers do not work, he added.

For users looking for an alternative to Windows, Weiss said, “If you have a deep investment in Windows, don’t change it, because a migration away from Windows to Linux would be very costly.”

He said users embarking on such a migration would lose out in terms of the cost of ownership because of the disruptive move from Windows to Linux. Companies that only have Windows skills in-house and do not have any Unix servers will need to retrain their IT support staff. “To change to Linux would involve a considerable cultural change and support changes,” said Weiss.

So if it is not going to be a widespread Windows replacement, where will Linux hit the mainstream?

“More and more users are developing applications on Java, where Linux is a good fit. The use of Linux is being driven by the middleware strategy being deployed,” said Weiss.

When combined, Java and Linux provide a degree of portability based on commodity components integrated into virtual server farms. “The blade server architecture combined with Linux potentially offers much better utilisation of resources, capacity and cost savings around Intel-compatible hardware [when compared against traditional Unix environments],” said Weiss.

Since Microsoft is offering .net as the development architecture on Windows, Linux is the only viable choice for users with Java-based development projects.

“If you want to develop applications in-house, or you want a choice of third-party suppliers where Java is the driving force, you may want to go to Linux,” said Weiss.

Have you had any experience deploying Linux in an enterprise environment. Tell us how it went. Send an email to Cliff Saran [email protected]

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