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Issue of August 2004 

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Open Revolution

Whenever an attempt is made to explain the use of Linux, the simplistic generalization anyone makes is that there is no cost factor in Linux. However, not only is open source catching on technologically, governments and forums like the World Social Forum, are taking to Linux because of its independence from the corporate world. Chan Chi Loong discusses the evolution of the Linux revolution.

Central to the philosophy behind open source is the idea that software can be grown organically through a community process, as opposed to it being built by a dedicated team of programmers. Because the software is shaped by the community at large, no single person owns it and the software becomes free for all to use.

This open versus proprietary argument is the key to understanding the open source movement, and it has certainly come a long way. From what was once looked askance as a geek movement that could never compete with the proprietary platform giants of the 1990s, open source has become a potent force to be reckoned with in the business world.

Nowhere is this more evident than Linux, the operating system that has become synonymous with the movement. Ever since Linus Torvalds started Linux as a one-man show in 1991, it has caught on and blossomed into a platform used by millions of users around the world.

Linux on the Rise

According to IDC, Linux is quickly gaining ground on other operating systems, and the trends show that the growth rate for Linux has accelerated since 2003. With a 16% market share in server OS shipments in 2003, Linux will rise to capture 27% of the market in 2007, taking away market share from all other alternatives-Unix, Windows and Netware.

In fact, much of the software underlying the Internet we currently use is open source software that runs well on Linux. According to Netcraft's May 2004 survey, more than 67% of over 50 million surveyed Web sites run on Apache Web servers. Then there's BIND (Berkeley Internet Name Daemon), an extremely popular open source implementation of DNS, sendmail (routes most e-mail messages), OpenSSL (security), Samba (file and print services), PERL (Web scripting), and others. All of which are open source software.

Beyond printer, e-mail and Web servers, Linux is now ready to move on to fill other enterprise needs such as high volume processing, and in this one area databases are the next logical step. Vendors like Oracle and IBM are aggressively working on offering Linux databases. According to Gartner Dataquest figures, the Linux RDBMS market grew 158% to US$300 million in 2003 from US$116 million in 2002.

Gartner also predicts that Linux will make inroads into desktop PCs and 220 million desktops will be replaced with Linux over the next two years. "Traditionally, our sweet spot has been migration from Unix to Linux," says Harish Pillay, Chief Technology Architect, Red Hat Asia. "Increasingly, we see an increase in opportunity to capture the Windows market share on desktops."

Range and Versatility

From the Internet and backend servers to wireless devices, Linux is used in a wide variety of places-an indication of its range and versatility.

For example, Alcatel uses Linux as their standard OS for their communication servers, and they gave many reasons for choosing this route.

"First of all it is free-and we're not talking about cost-but specifically that it is open, with free access to the source code. Linux is more adapted for a real-time OS than Windows, which is critical for communication servers," says Dirk Dumortier, Director of Business Development for Voice and Applications in APAC, Alcatel.

He explains that Linux has traditionally been strong in networking implementations like IP, which gives them a leg up when deploying VoIP applications. Also, Alcatel's communication servers include e-mail, Web server and communication portal applications, which Linux already has several outstanding open source solutions. By choosing Linux, Alcatel has sped up their time to market as it didn't have to develop every single function from scratch.

Coupled with the fact that Linux runs on practically any CPU, be it an embedded CPU or a network server, and that Linux has a built in security stack protecting the kernel that (unlike Windows) needs little external security design, it's easy to see why they chose Linux. "Linux is not just an arbitrary choice, but a strategic one," says Dumortier. "This is one reason we became number one for IP Telephony in Europe."

Other examples of Linux's range and versatility include Fluke's wireless Waverunner handhelds for site surveys and Axis' digital network surveillance cameras.

Axis embedded camera chips have high requirements on performance and code size. Linux is suitable for building embedded systems and has a ready architecture for IPv6 and Java-components that Axis feels will be crucial to their network cameras. The fact that Linux is open source, which reduces their development time, is also a key factor.

Linux has even penetrated into the financial sector and banks, who are typically conservative customers.

"You know Linux has come of age when it has moved to Wall Street, with big players like Morgan Stanley adopting the open source platform," says Bill Bradway, group vice-president, retail financial services, Financial Insights. From 0% Linux systems in 2001 to an estimated 75% Linux systems by 2005, Morgan Stanley has achieved cost savings approaching 80%, according to Bradway.

He believes that Linux is a permanent addition to the IT arsenals of finance enterprises, and that grid technology and web services will drive Linux into higher end processing.

Making an Impact

Because of the inroads that Linux is making, IT platform vendors have to re-evaluate how the open source movement will affect them, and some vendors are in a better position to ride the open source wave than others.

"Sun is perfectly positioned to contribute to and benefit from the shift to commodity software," claims Danese Cooper, open source diva and group manager, Sun open source programs office, Sun Microsystems. According to her, Sun has been investing heavily in supporting technologies that comprise what many people think of as the "Linux Stack". Examples include co-founding the GNOME Foundation, sponsoring and contributing to and creating the project.

Of course, others like Microsoft-which adopts a philosophy 180 degrees converse to open source-are ostensibly some of the most vocal detractors.

"There certainly is a perception out there that Linux is free. This misrepresents reality though," argues Chris Sharp, director for platform value at Microsoft Asia-Pacific. "We believe that when the full range of costs is fairly considered, Windows compares very favourably with Linux in terms of the total cost of development."

He cites the cost of integration and tools, additional "hidden" component royalties for applications not included in Linux distributions such as codec licenses and Bluetooth network stacks, and increased costs for GPL compliance. Other costs included development time required to create drivers, and maintenance and support costs for Linux.

Sharp backed this up with last year's total economic impact study from Giga Information Group. The study suggested that for portal application development, the Microsoft .NET/Windows platform offers substantial cost advantages over a J2EE/Linux stack, showing that enterprise customers can incur approximately 25% to 28% less cost over a four-year life cycle.

Somewhere between these two varying extremes are technology platform agnostic companies that try to walk a middle ground. Borland is one example with their Application Lifecycle Management suite that caters to J2EE, .NET and Linux platforms.

On the issue of open source being better than proprietary platforms, Nick Jackson, managing director, ASEAN, Borland Software Corporation, had this to say after praising Linux for its good points. "Many organisations may feel better having full access to the source code, and undoubtedly certain sectors such as the government feel most strongly about this.

"However, the belief that open source provides a much cheaper alternative to commercial systems is often not the case in reality. Commercial systems are often much better supported and version management is usually smoother, and for this reason, most mission critical systems today are run on Java or Microsoft systems rather than open source."

All about sovereignty

Whatever your take is on the open source issue, there is no doubt that open source will have a huge impact on the future. End users, vendors and governments alike will leverage the open source movement for their own benefits, and it's not just about the software but also the philosophy behind the movement.

According to Red Hat's Pillay, Asian governments are driving Linux adoption rates as they are concerned with the cost and security flaws in Microsoft windows (which to Microsoft's credit they have started to take very seriously), and possible threats to national interests from running sensitive operations on proprietary software owned by one company.

Pillay sums up this aspect of Linux philosophy nicely. "Linux is about sovereignty. In open source, the data is mine and I can always have access to it."

Courtsey: CMP Business Media

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