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Enterprise Linux apps gap disappearing

So many applications are available on Linux these days, if you're only thinking about Linux, you're behind the times.

Chances are you're running Apache now for your Web site, and you're wondering if you should install some more Linux applications, such as a mail server or a database. Or perhaps you've thought about using Linux more in your IT shop, or maybe converting the whole thing over to Linux.

But it might be that you are a Windows shop, and you just have some Linux boxes in-house to play with and see what they can do. Or, maybe, you've been running Unix on a big machine, and you're thinking there has to be a less expensive way to do this.

If you're thinking about Linux, you're thinking along the right lines. If you're only thinking, however, you're behind the times. Today, there are many applications available on Linux, from the desktop all the way to the server, from the front end to the back end of financial applications and more. There will be more of these applications, and soon, because the pace of development is increasing even as you're reading this.

Take a look at Danny Wall. He's a network administrator at Health First Inc., a family of Brevard County, Fla., nonprofit health-care facilities. He's running OpenOffice, a Microsoft Office alternative that provides a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation maker, a drawing application and database user tools that allow users to work with dBase databases, or any Open Database Connectivity- or Java Database Connectivity-compliant database. It's really what most people would need to perform common office tasks. In fact, it's really more than most people would need.

Wall only distributed OpenOffice to the IT department. He doesn't need it in the whole organization, he said, because "there are some areas where you only need word processing and e-mail, like nursing, for instance." But the organization does have some 2,800 PCs, and Wall said there is a plan to install OpenOffice on the majority of those machines.

As with any implementation of new applications on new platforms, there will probably be a few glitches for IT shops that move from Windows to Linux. Right now, Wall is working out a bug in OpenOffice that caused problems with Light Directory Access Protocol authentication for some Microsoft products, which Wall is also using, and that can be a problem for anyone not attuned to such esoterica.

Wall notes that he's running a mix of operating systems on his back-end servers, from Novell Netware to Linux for a CD-ROM server to AIX for higher end applications to Solaris for Web serving. That's not great, he said. "We don't like running that many OSs," he said, and he plans to move to Linux more completely.

Wall said he is using Linux on the desktop with OpenOffice because of the cost, "and because some applications run better on Linux, like Apache and MySQL and PHP [many of Wall's desktops are used by developers], and because Netware and Linux are highly secure."

Good reasons: cost, performance, security. But Bernard Golden, president of Navica Software, said the fact that much Linux software, like OpenOffice, is distributed free of licensing charges, doesn't mean that it's free. While such software can "have real economic benefits for users," there are costs associated with it.

Open source software comes from the open source movement, which consists of people who develop software for others to use without licensing costs. In many cases, Golden said, the software developer just likes developing software. Or companies that use self-developed software may make it available to others in the open source community to benefit from the development synergy in that community.

"Some 70% of such software is written on a volunteer basis," Golden estimated, "while about 30% is written as a part of a job. When it's the latter, the company may use the product and want to improve it. Making it open source benefits everyone." Others in the open source community have access to the source code, and can therefore improve the software for everyone's benefit.

Meanwhile, some open source software is available for Windows. But most of it, Golden said, runs under Linux. There are Web servers, mail servers, tools for graphic display, databases and more. "Linux will act as a launching pad for lots of open source software," Golden said.

But there are costs, despite the lack of licensing fees. Golden said you need to realize that if you want to use the "free" Linux software that's available and pending. There will also be expenses for training because the staff has to learn the application, and for support, which you might have to buy. There's a continuum of costs for training, he said, from just having someone read an application on the Web to writing a check for a formal training program.

Today, most Linux applications run on the server. But there are desktop applications and, Golden said, "I expect to see more of them. I look for more office apps, and mail and browsing applications."

More apps are coming, according to Kurt Vandenburg, a partner in Capco, a management consulting company serving in the financial industry. Vandenburg is responsible for offshore operations and technical development. "We see Linux continuing to make inroads in servers and desktop applications," he said. "It's primarily servers, but there are a lot of large government calls for desktop applications. This bodes well for Linux in general."

Vandenburg said his company is working with both commercial applications and custom applications for financial services companies. "These applications are found in the front-end, the middle and back-office systems," he explains. They are found in most areas of the trade lifecycle [the series of steps in the processing of a commodity or equity trade]."

Vandenburg said the increasing move to Linux applications in the financial business is a continuing trend. "The financial services industry adopts early," he said. "We're now five years into the Linux wave, and well beyond finance. There's good momentum now."

Why? Vandenburg said: "For small business that wants a packaged solution, Microsoft makes more sense. But if you look at the trends, Sun and Solaris have largely displaced mainframes, and now the combination of Intel/AMD hardware with the attractiveness of Linux are displacing Sun." He noted: "On one project we replaced $1 million worth of hardware with $100,000 of hardware [and Linux and Linux apps] and got two times performance improvement."

So if you're being deviled by the desire to increase your Linux usage, and you're looking for more apps, take a better look. Better performance, lower costs and better security may be waiting for your investigation.

David Gabel has been testing and writing about computers for more than 25 years.

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