Financial institutions crunch the numbers on Linux

NEW YORK — It is generally assumed that executives who have risen high enough in their organizations to push the use of the Linux operating system are an ambitious group. What they must also be, according to participants in panel at the LinuxWorld conference in New York City, is savvy.

Linux

radically changes many technical and non-technical variables in the equation of how to configure the enterprise’s computing infrastructure, said participants on the Thursday panel, Linux on Wall Street: Practical Experience Implementing Linux in Financial Services.

The keys for executives attempting to sell the company on Linux is to understand both the technology issues and the ways in which corporations work. The latter — which is where the savvy comes in — focuses on picking the right spot for Linux’s debut. If it is brought in and fails to achieve cost projections and operate at least as well as proprietary systems, non-technical executives could sour on the approach — even if good reasons exist for its lacklustre performance. “”(Carefully) identify the first-use cases for introduction into the organization,”” said LabMorgan vice president John Cislo.

The fate of Linux, then, has fundamental implications on the acceptance of open source tools for mission-critical applications in established industries. “”The Achilles heel is to oversell on the merits of open source,”” said Robert Ryan, a vice president for JPMorganChase. “”It can self-destruct.””

It is also important to carefully consider how to pitch the new technology. Lower cost of ownership, of course, is considered a vital element of Linux’s appeal. Often, however, the proponents’ advocacy goes far beyond this. The panel seemed to suggest that technology executives should pay heed to the political adage to keep the message simple. Long explanations of the power of the open source community may muddy the message for people who are primarily interested in the bottom line. These people need to be convinced that Linux works well and that it can potentially cut initial and ongoing costs. “”Sell infrastructure change on total cost of ownership,”” said Evan Bauer, a consultant.

The panelists positioned Linux’s importance as much more than a valuable new technology. They said it is a tool to penetrate open source in a meaningful way and thereby break the hold of restrictive business structures. They suggested that moving to a non-proprietary landscape democratizes several key areas. “”It’s clearly a vehicle of change, given the proper use case,”” Ryan said. “”It’s unencumbered by the previous bureaucracy.””

Since open source software is non-proprietary, companies are not locked into a single vendor for new features, support and the customization they need to create applications to support specific tasks. Now, instead of asking vendors to develop specific features — which is especially dicey for less influential smaller enterprises — companies can write their own or put jobs out to bid. Likewise, support is more competitive. “”In an open source world, the better technology has a chance to win,”” Ryan said.

Ultimately, however, panelists said Linux’s fate will rest on its performance. For one thing, the price benefits now enjoyed by Linux almost certainly will fade as competitors who realize its implications — something evidenced by the mainstream companies who exhibited the show — react and adjust.

In addition, no matter how inexpensive or egalitarian an approach is, it will perform nothing more than peripheral tasks if it doesn’t measure up. Mission-critical applications in the banking and finance industry — such as those employed on the trading floor — are very demanding. Very small differences in calculation speed controls when a deal is executed and potentially can change prices by millions of dollars. “”At the end of the day, Linux will have done its job as a leveler,”” said Ryan. “”It will have to stand on its own as a technology.””

Canada is well represented in the movement, Bauer said. “”Some of the best contributions have come from the University of Waterloo and the IBM Lab in Toronto. Canada contributions to open source have been disproportionate to its size.””

One participant marveled that even having a panel discussion about open source and Linux use in mission critical applications in as established an industry as banking and finance shows how far it has come. He said that LinuxWorlds of just a few years ago were dominated by folks with nicknames such as Commander Taco and Mad Dog. “”The tide has already turned,”” Bauer said.

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