Linux's future as a dominant data center platform hinges on several factors, none of which is any less important than its ever-improving scalability, reliability and cost structure. However, two very real-world issues in 2003 could affect the operating system's viability as the principal technology driving enterprises by 2008: the economy and the SCO Group's legal action against Linux.
Decision makers fear risky investments, and right now, in some circles, Linux may be looked upon as a risky proposition. Experts say that Linux's scalability improves with each incarnation of the kernel, but it doesn't match up to mainframe, or even Unix scalability yet. Also, intellectual property and patent infringement, two subjects once thought foreign to Linux and open-source software, are suddenly tangible concerns to C-level executives pondering a switch from a proprietary platform to Linux.
"It's not hard to get Linux into an organization, but it's [difficult] to be the preferred data center platform. That change happens slowly," said Al Gillen, research director of system software with International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass. "Commitment to an architecture is a multiple decades-long processes."
Linux's fan base is cult-like. They shout from the highest peaks the virtues of Linus Torvalds' brainchild operating system, and only recently was its credibility challenged. Earlier this year, the SCO Group filed a $3 billion lawsuit against IBM Corp., charging that Big Blue had copied code from Unix System V (which IBM licenses from SCO as the basis for IBM's AIX Unix operating system) into the Linux kernel. SCO followed that up with letters to leading enterprises threatening similar civil action against them if licenses were not acquired.
Pundits viewed this as a desperate act from a financially desperate company. Others, however, looked at the bigger picture and worried that other open-source developers would follow suit and try to get paid for code they had contributed to the kernel.
"If you're planning on a platform that you may be using for the next 15 years, are you going to be [investing] in that platform if there are questions surrounding it?" Gillen asked. "The answer is probably 'not' right now."
Many enterprises, however, have embraced Linux, to differing degrees. On the front end, Linux distributions like SuSE Linux AG and Red Hat Inc. have scored significant desktop wins with government agencies in Germany and Japan, for example. Others, like online travel agent Orbitz, have made Linux the foundation of their transaction architecture.
"I totally think Linux will be the preferred data center platform," said Leon Chism, chief Internet architect for Orbitz. "Going into our Linux implementation, we knew we were going to target ourselves being a top Internet site. We knew we were going to build a horizontal application that could run across 50 boxes or just one. That kind of development was our No. 1 goal. If it can run on one ($250,000) 128-processor box, it can run on 64 (less expensive) two-way boxes. With that kind of ground-up development, Linux is the way to go."
Linux's compatibility with industry-standard Intel architecture also makes it much more attractive than pricey proprietary Unix platforms sold by Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc, for example.
"[Linux's] role is limited, but it's just now starting to replace Unix in some areas where Unix dominates now, like back-end database management systems," said Bill Claybrook, research director for Linux, open-source and grid computing for Boston-based analysis firm Aberdeen Group. "As more ISVs [independent software vendors] move more applications to Linux, then we'll see Linux replace more and more Unix boxes in data centers."
Claybrook cautioned, however, that any future economic setbacks like the current recession could slow down Linux implementations.
"If the economy goes sour again, companies won't buy anything," Claybrook said. "They may, however, buy smaller four-way servers to increase capacity needs rather than replacing big machines with bigger machines."
Claybrook said that Linux's scalability is optimal enough to get the attention of most data center administrators to start them pressuring ISVs for popular applications for Linux. Also, the transition from Unix environments to Linux is simpler on a migration and training front than Windows.
"It's going to be a while, two to three years," Claybrook said. "Unix is going to be around forever, but new purchases are likely to be Linux based in the data center. Enterprises are looking for more choices in hardware and don't want to be locked into hardware by an OS. With Linux, you have your choice of distributions."
Wesley Parish, a New Zealand-based Linux developer, said Linux is on its way to replacing Unix as a data center platform, and he pointed to several security-related projects on different kernel teams as examples of upcoming enhancements.
"Add to all of that the improvements in scalability," Parish said, "and you have a truly awesome product."
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