Linux eats its way out to the mainstream

Without ballyhoo or headlines, open source is eating away at the enterprise computing core and moving steadily outwards.

Without ballyhoo or headlines, open source is eating away at the enterprise computing core and moving steadily outwards.

Open source desktops are here already, but I believe it will be at least three years before we see any real effect on the Microsoft-dominated corporate desktop. So on the surface nothing looks untoward, but a look inside tells a very different story.

A factor in this phenomenon is the steady commoditisation of Intel/AMD-based computers. Supercomputing power is now readily available for commercial and academic use, running on Linux clusters. Oil companies have been keen proponents of these clustered installations to process exploration and geophysical data.

The most conservative of all sectors, finance, has worked out the productivity and economic gains of open source. Tales of banks conducting widescale replacements of proprietary Unix systems in favour of Linux are circulating in City pubs.

In industries where margins are tight, such as web hosting and internet services, open source software has been used widely for years. Companies are deploying multiple web and e-mail servers without necessarily worrying about incurring software licence costs. With the right skills you can buy your hardware and configure your choice of open source operating system and e-mail server software. Advances in distribution have made installing Linux almost as easy as setting up Windows.

Elsewhere, companies are integrating open source software into products as diverse as domestic ADSL routers, vending machines and in-car navigation systems.

But the real traction for open source software is from the inside out. Developers and system administrators are quietly adopting open source. With numbers of downloads and noise on bulletin boards growing, technology companies are quickly realising there are business benefits from ownership, sponsorship and adoption of open source software.

A remarkable example is the Eclipse integrated development environment, used by programmers to write and maintain software. A non-profit group formed in 2001 by IBM, Borland and Red Hat started a project to develop a software toolset. This framework, Eclipse, can be extended to include multiple programming languages.

Today a cursory search on a leading jobs website returned 128 matches for Eclipse developer skills. Eclipse has seemingly won developer hearts and minds without the usual promotional fanfare.

Not everything in the garden is rosy. The European Union's software patents farce, the remnants of the SCO copyright lawsuit against IBM and others, licence complexity, code forks and perceptions of support issues still remain in the IT profession's collective consciousness.

Most of these issues are bumps on the road and will in time dissipate, although some will need careful stewardship by the open source community.

Governments are lining up behind open source as a mechanism to see off dependency on both corporate and anglophone software. The Openoffice alternative to Microsoft Office has had a major beta release, with the Indian government backing a mass distribution of a Tamil version as a highly successful and polished open source package.

Measuring the amount of installed open source software will always be an inexact science, for the simple reason that you do not have to register the software or buy a CD to use it. But what is irrefutable is that traditional global software suppliers are now supporting Linux.

This year has been interesting; the coming years will be even more so.

Patrick Tarpey is chairman of the BCS Open Source Specialist Group and system architect for a leading UK public body

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