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Issue of March 2003 
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Cover Story: Linux in the enterprise
Linux: Do you really need it?

IT managers have a number of questions on their minds regarding the need to use Linux. This article addresses these queries and provides strategies to help decide if one should go with the open source product or not. by Soutiman Das Gupta

There are many questions in the mind of an IT manager regarding the choice of a new OS in an organization. And in the case of Linux the probable questions are:

  • Do I need to use Linux, a new OS? Why replace the old OS if it poses minimal problems?
  • Is Linux suited to the applications I run on my enterprise servers?
  • How do I decide which applications to run on Linux?
  • Is Linux really free?
  • I'm apprehensive about migrating to Linux, so why try?

This article can help answer the queries above so that you can make an informed decision about the use of Linux in your enterprise.

Why fix if it ain't broke?
Indian enterprises traditionally use, and are very comfortable with the OSs that ship pre-installed with servers. These OSs like HP-UX, AIX, Solaris, AS/400, and Windows 2000 are usually hardened and configured to perform optimally on the servers. And the OS license is usually part of the cost of procurement. With such a cozy setup, why use a new OS?

Here's the catch. The customer does not need to pay for the OS that shipped with the server. But it has to pay for subsequent upgrades, which usually cost a packet. And the dizzy speed at which some proprietary OS vendors release upgrades and re-write licensing terms, may be exasperating for the IT manager. The enterprise also has to re-deploy AMCs for the new year, all which adds to the cost.

Linux can offer significant cost savings along with the reliability, manageability, flexibility, and interoperability of many proprietary OSs. And the enterprise does not need to be tied down to a single vendor. These properties can
provide a big advantage in a business environment, which is critical and constantly evolving.

"Imagine being able to build and deploy an application on an Intel-based server. Then, as business increases, being able to simply move it to a midrange server, and ultimately to a mainframe. All this adds up to Linux being an excellent, low-cost alternative to other more expensive operating systems for companies," says Sandeep Menon, Linux Business Manager, IBM ASEAN/SA.

Source code
The Linux source code comes along with the OS and the enterprise is free to modify it according to its need. This has been a notable advantage enjoyed by Linux users. However, Microsoft has introduced a 'Shared Source Initiative.' This program makes the source code to Windows available, tailored to meet the needs of specific categories of only a few specific customers, like governments and colleges.

Suitability of applications
Linux can support a broad range of enterprise applications. This is evident from the number of enterprise application vendors' decision to enable its products on the open source OS. Vendors like Oracle, SAP, CA, Sun, Veritas, and Symantec ship Linux versions of their application software. Hardware vendors like IBM, Sun, HP, and Dell ship their servers pre-installed with a hardened Linux OS. This means an enterprise can run ERP modules, network management tools, databases, financial packages, enterprise storage, and Web-based tools on a variety of hardware.

Linux may catch on at a rapid pace in the telecom, manufacturing, and xSP space. The availability of 64-bit architecture microprocessors will add to the suitability of Linux in data centers and enterprises.

And many industry watchers agree that the Lintel architecture will play a positive role in the adoption process.
How do IT Managers decide?

K. K. Mookhey, CTO, Network Intelligence India Private Limited says, "It may not be a good idea to use Linux if the organization already uses Windows-based proprietary enterprise application. For example, if the ERP modules are Windows-based. However, if the applications are generic, almost anything that runs on Windows can run on Linux."
The Meta Group feels that the real choice is between RISC servers and Intel servers. The choice about Linux only needs to be made if the CIO's strategy is to use Intel-based servers in the data center and phase out RISC servers.

Organizations with strong Windows skills, significant investments in Microsoft technology, and a strategic partnership with Microsoft should stay with Windows and avoid increasing the complexity of the environment by adding another OS. Other organizations need to decide when to use Lintel instead of Unix/RISC. This should be based on hardware costs, scalability, and availability.

Vendor considerations
Since Linux is a product of the joint efforts of a development community, no one 'owns' the software. So no one will take the responsibility if it does not work. However Linux distribution vendors like Red Hat and SuSE offer support and technical services for a fee when you purchase enterprise-class products.

The vendors promise 24x7 support and prompt on-site visits, but many enterprises are unsure of its efficiency. This is because a company cannot afford to have the mission critical server down while it waits for support personnel to arrive from a location miles away. To combat this issue, enterprises can use the services offered by third parties who offer strict SLAs you can rely on.

Anil Valluri, Director, Systems Engineering, Sun Microsystems, India says, "Support is offered by a third party organization for break-fix maintenance. However, support for bug fixes, patch upgrades, and drivers needs to be handled by the customer organization directly, by downloading from the Web. Thus, the customer may not receive end-to-end support from the vendor. This puts a lot of doubt in the mind of an IT manager regarding the use of an open source OS on mission critical applications.

Kamal Dutta, Business Manager-Linux, HP India says, "Linux vendors in their bid to outdo each other package more and more layers into the Linux kernel. This can result in a serious challenge since each vendor's package will differ from another. This may cause customers to reconsider the adoption of Linux."

Security issue
Since the source code comes along with the OS, an organization can modify it to suit security-specific needs. But the same flexibility can be a security hazard. Under the General Public License of the developer community, users may modify the code to their liking, but do not retain the rights to the modification. And they may have to share the modification with the developer community if the need arises.

An enterprise also has to perform OS hardening exercises where open ports are blocked, unnecessary drivers are uninstalled, and unneeded features removed. This helps create a more secure product. Although Linux users can download patches and updates from the Web, a proprietary software vendor is usually very prompt to notify and send the latest patches and updates.

Linux is free to download, modify, and re-distribute. But the enterprise versions come at a small cost. Javed Tapia, Director India, Red Hat says, "Linux costs far less to support, maintain, and upgrade licenses. If one vendor charges too much, the organization is free to select another vendor without any proprietary lock-in. The TCO in
the long term is less in case of Linux as against other proprietary software. According to a study, 75 percent of the total IT expenditure is incurred in the procurement of licensed software."

Migration to Linux
OS migration is a change management issue. And the issues faced by each organization are unique. An IT manager has to consider a number of factors before the decision to migrate is made. Here are some considerations:

  • Will Linux support the applications I run in my organization?
  • Will Linux run optimally on the hardware I use?
  • Will there be downtime on mission critical servers?
  • What will happen to the money I spent on purchasing and updating licenses on proprietary OSs currently on the network?
  • Do I have enough technical personnel who have experience on open source OSs?
  • How much support can the OS vendor actually give?

Lately, most enterprise applications and database vendors have announced support for Linux. And the decision is mostly customer- and market-driven. Although the new versions will support Linux, the older versions may not. In such cases, you can keep the application server OS as it is, and migrate OS of the other servers.

Linux can run on almost all kinds of hardware which includes legacy 386 PCs, mainframes, Sparc-, and Intel-based systems. And many users are surprised at performance levels cranked out by legacy equipment.

Linux can be installed on a partition on a server running a different OS. The applications can be migrated in pre-planned steps to avoid downtime. However, it's a good idea to migrate non-mission critical applications to Linux first. Learn from the good and bad experiences, and then move mission critical applications.

Once you decide to migrate, the money you spent on licenses is a 'sunk' cost. You have to ask the Linux vendor for a realistic price/performance study over time to be convinced whether it's worthwhile to migrate.

It's very important to have experienced technical personnel in your enterprise to run Linux. The study of Linux is as large as an ocean. There are a lot of technicalities that need to be understood. And also consider what you will have to do, if a bunch of technical personnel did not arrive at work, or decided to quit without warning.

Support and training is available for enterprise editions of Linux. Make sure you sign a strict SLA to bind the partner with its promises. P. Rambabu, General Manager-IT, Asian Paints India uses Linux on mission critical servers and is pleased with its performance. He advises, "Don't trust analysts, vendors, websites, and reading material blindly, because you have to feel comfortable about your decision. Sometimes, a commercial product may be cheaper if you have to hire a Linux consultant and pay 1,000 dollars for it. The whole idea of using Linux may go to waste. But if you feel you have the expertise to sort out issues, it is a good idea. Linux works."

Soutiman Das Gupta can be reached at

Where to use Linux
The Meta Group feels that Linux has its place in the data center, but it is not a silver bullet for Windows. Linux can be used in the following instances:

  • In an appliance where the OS is not exposed, like NAS and kiosks. Linux removes the licensing cost issues, and the appliance maker becomes responsible for the support and integration of Linux. Because the OS is not exposed, it does not have an impact on staff skills and training.
  • When the price/performance benefits of commodity Intel servers over RISC are important, but single-image high-availability is not an issue. Intel servers are widely used for scientific computing due to the computational price/performance of the Intel chipset. Web and application servers usually are processor-centric, and Intel-based servers can deliver 2x-3x better price/performance than RISC. Although it is possible to use Windows in this application, many Unix-centric organizations will be more sympathetic to Linux and will find the skill transition much simpler.
  • As a general-purpose infrastructure server like DHCP, DNS, and POP. In these cases solid reliability is required, but high availability is not. Linux is particularly well suited in this role, because it is robust and many infrastructure products are readily available.

Linux should be avoided whenever there is a requirement for single-image scalability above 4 CPUs or high-availability based on OS-level clustering. In these circumstances, Windows 2000 or Unix should be used through 2004.

Linux in the data center
Data centers generally use heterogeneous environments since they have to cater to multiple clients. So it's a good idea for data centers to keep the option of using multiple OSs.

Advantages of Linux as a data center OS:

  • Many server applications and programs are written exclusively for use with open source OSs.
  • Linux is free to download and modify.
  • The OS is known to be stable and efficient.

Disadvantages of using Linux as a data center OS:

  • Popular applications of other software vendors (like Microsoft) do not run on this platform.
  • The Unix command line interface is\ essential for in-depth management and tweaking. So it can be daunting if the user is not experienced.
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