Enterprise IT shops used to have a clear vision for Linux and Unix use, but the potential of the 2.6 kernel, better vendor support and a competitive commercial Linux market is clouding that demarcation.
A recent Burton Group research report concluded that Linux is "good enough" to supplant Unix for some specific high-end tasks generally considered Unix's exclusive territory. Author Gary Hein cautions, however, that Linux is not ready for every enterprise role.
"There used to be a clean line where you'd run something on Linux and where you'd run something on Unix," Hein said. "The 2.6 kernel pushes that line out further to where Linux has a greater role."
Linux is entrenched in the enterprise as a Web, application or domain name server where there aren't high requirements, and can return up to 10 times the savings that a proprietary hardware-software combination would serve the same role, Hein said.
"Linux came in the door for task-specific roles, where in the past, an OS would apply to an entire enterprise," Hein said. "One of the risks I see is when people want to extrapolate that Linux is good in one area, it must be good in the entire enterprise. The fact is, Linux in other areas won't give you a 10x benefit."
That may not always be the case. The 2.6 kernel, released in December, will be the foundation of upcoming supported enterprise releases from leading distributors Red Hat Inc. and Novell Inc. It also includes enterprise-class scalability improvements, greater hardware support, native Posix threading libraries (NPTL), nonmemory uniform access (NUMA), an improved scheduler and other features that enable it to support server and even desktop multitasking.
"These 2.6 kernel innovations shatter existing hardware limitations," Hein wrote in the report. "For example, the 2.6 kernel can now scale up to 64 central processing units (CPUs), 64 GB of random-access memory (RAM), and 16 terabyte file systems; 2.4 limitations were 16 CPUs, 16 GB RAM, and 2 TB file systems.
Enterprises, however, will not touch 2.6 until support from Red Hat and SuSE and applications from Oracle, SAP and others are available.
"Services and support tend to be the No. 1 issues with clients I talk to," Hein said.
Novell's acquisitions of Ximian and SuSE Linux AG in the last 10 months have changed the landscape not only for the Waltham, Mass. company, but for enterprise Linux. Red Hat, the No. 1 distributor, now has a challenger to the throne and Novell has made all the right moves since announcing its commitment to Linux.
Internally, Novell is migrating all its desktops to Linux, while outwardly the vendor has already opened the YaST system configuration tool, Ximian Connector and iFolders file system to open source. Novell will continue to develop and tightly integrate these products within their own Linux distribution, but will also benefit from the continued contributions of the open source community.
Novell's challenge, Hein said, is not only to effectively sell the Linux OS, which is reaching commodity status, but enable its flagship identity management, collaboration and desktop products for Linux to add a value that right now Red Hat cannot match.
"Linux is here to stay, but it has yet to fully mature. Momentum continues to build as IHVs and ISVs [independent software vendors] adopt Linux as a core of their future strategy," Hein wrote." We expect significant growing pains along the way, as the market understands the technical, business and legal implications of how and when to embrace Linux and open source software."