Linux: Navigating the road ahead

Like many IT managers today, Jean-François Lévesque is giving serious thought to Linux. Though Linux has long been accepted in the enterprise space at the edge of the network for Web servers, firewalls and the like, it’s starting to broaden its horizons and take on new roles. Linux is finding its

way onto the data centre and is even making some inroads into the desktop. Lévesque wants to explore the possibilities that lie ahead for Linux, but he’s reluctant to move forward too quickly. The senior director of IT for Galileo Genomics Inc. in St. Laurent, Que. has decided caution and careful testing is the smartest path. And he’s begun testing Linux on some non-critical databases. The mission critical data, however will stay where it has always been, on its Sun Solaris box.

And this is exactly what all IT decision makers should be doing, with respect to Linux, says Ted Schadler, principal analyst for Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

Though Linux is technically ready to take on much of the IT workload, proceeding too quickly will lead to chaos, he says.

“”Unbridled, unmanaged Linux growth will lead to proliferation hell,”” Schadler writes in a paper called The Linux Tipping Point.

Instead, IT managers need to control their Linux deployment, Schadler says. And indeed, it is the need for caution that represents Linux’s most formidable hurdle.

“”The biggest barrier to adoption is IT’s risk aversion,”” he says.

This is what keeps Lévesque from putting his mission-critical database onto a Linux box. Though the Solaris platform is considerably more pricey, the Oracle-Solaris combination is the industry standard. His IT department had lots of discussions about using Linux to run their Oracle database instead of the Sun Unix platform, but the Oracle-Sun combination was one that had already proven itself.

Even if his company were to save $200,000 by using a Linux-Oracle combination, that savings would be hard to justify if something suddenly went wrong.

“”But what it came down to, is the Oracle-Sun combination has been out there for a long time,”” he says. “”It’s a recognized standard combination, and there’s no risk involved . . . At least you know you have that covered. So, I would hesitate to put Linux out there right now, because it just hasn’t been around long enough.””

When others have used the Linux-Oracle combination and proven its reliability, Lévesque will definitely revisit the idea. Meanwhile, he’s carrying out some tests of his own.

“”We’re planning to do some testing of some less critical databases running Oracle and Linux, just to get a feel for it.””

Sun is an expensive system, he says, and Linux running on an Intel platform is a much cheaper alternative. It’s a matter of economies of scale.

“”That’s why it’s costing an arm and a leg when you go to Sun, because they don’t have the market that an Intel platform has. So you’re paying a premium price.””

Though licensing costs are cheaper for Linux, it’s the hardware that represents the true savings where Linux is concerned, Schadler says. Linux can take on most of the same workloads a Unix station can, but it can do so while running on commodity servers such as Intel and AMD.

Where Galileo Genomics, a genetics research company, does use Linux is for computational purposes. Here, Linux is a common platform. Lévesque is currently running Red Hat Linux on IBM hardware clusters. But he might move to a different Linux vendor, depending on how quickly Red Hat can provide support for the 64 bit AMD system.

Lévesque’s caution with respect to putting Linux on the mission-critical database is only natural, says Gordon Haff, a senior analyst at Illuminata in Nashua, N.H. “”It takes time for things to happen.””


Alain Forcier, however, is making things happen now with respect to Linux. He’s taking it to the desktop, and cost is a major driving force. Forcier, the IT manager for Foresbec Inc., a hardwood lumber exporter based in Drummondville, Que., would rather spend his money on ERP systems that provide a lot of value than on Microsoft Office licensing fees, as most of the functionality in Office goes unused.

Though Foresbec has Office 2000 licences for all of its users, Forcier has also installed OpenOffice on all of the desktops. He doesn’t plan to renew the Microsoft licences.

“”If I renew, it will cost me more than $20,000.””

Eventually, Forcier plans to run OpenOffice on a Linux box which his users will access though a Web browser. He sees little value in paying a $400 licensing fee for users that are not likely to do more than make Word documents with their office suites.

Forcier is using Linux for Foresbec’s firewall, its Web server and fax server. He has replaced his MS Exchange-Outlook-FACSys combination with Internet Messaging Program from Horde.

As a result of the switch, users lost some bells and whistles — the company’s e-mail client is now text only.

“”But we are in business, so we decided to keep the message in text only. The things the user lost was all the extra things that bring you viruses,”” he says.

Forcier is in the process of replacing the NT server that acts as the primary domain with LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) on Linux.

“”I will be able to run with no NT at all. That would be great,”” he says. “”I’m not anti-Microsoft, I just want to spend my money well.””

If Microsoft licences were closer to $100 or $150, he says he’d continue using it.

Lévesque has a different take. Though he has also thought about Linux on the desktop, and actually did some testing with it, he ultimately rejected the idea.

Most of his users are not sophisticated computer users, and it’s already a lot of work putting them on a platform with which they’re familiar — Windows. If Galileo Genomics switched to Linux, it would take twice the time to look after the desktop users. He is, however, using Linux to run a Citrix client through which many Windows Office applications are accessed.

“”But to use it as a desktop with OpenOffice, and all of that — here I see a certain risk involved.””

Besides, he says, there are too many competing Linux desktops out there at the moment.

“”They have to get their act together and propose basically one desktop.””

Linux is in a bit of a Catch-22 situation when it comes to the desktop, says Illuminata’s Haff. Because there aren’t that many desktop applications that currently support Linux, users aren’t likely to make the switch. But more applications won’t be made available for Linux until there are more users.

“”So it will be a tough shift, but not an impossible one.””


Politics also comes into play in the Linux versus Microsoft battle for the desktop, Schadler says.

It’s politics that has Chris Chapman concerned about Linux. IT managers considering Linux have to ask a philosophical and moral question, he says the Toronto-based software development consultant.

“”Passively, you’re aligning yourself with GPL (General Public Licence).”” And this, he says, normalizes the deconstruction of the capitalist, free market system.

Those who champion Linux, however, argue the advantages of not being locked into Microsoft and being able to see code. But the political talk doesn’t amount to much, Haff says.

“”There may be some rhetoric about not being locked into Microsoft, and having access to code, but in most cases, it’s money,”” he says.

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