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Commentary: Linux questions and answers

Linux will go mainstream in the data center in 2003. Why? Because it delivers Unix reliability at Intel prices and has strong support from the likes of HP, IBM, Oracle and SAP.

Commentary: Linux questions and answers
By Forrester Research
Special to CNET
April 25, 2003, 12:45PM PT

By Ted Schadler, Principal Analyst

Linux will go mainstream in the data center in 2003. Why? Because the open-source operating system delivers Unix reliability at Intel prices and has strong support from vendors such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Oracle and SAP. But executives still wonder about the right Linux strategy.

Forrester recently spoke with 50 large North American companies with Linux experience and 28 vendors helping customers with Linux solutions. From these conversations, we conclude that Linux will take over most new Unix workloads in the data center over the next five years--mostly on Intel-based servers. But executives have lots of questions about how to make this transition. Among them:

What risks do I face in adopting Linux?
Very few. There is no risk that IBM or HP will abandon Linux, and it's only a matter of time before software makers will port their applications to Linux. The only material risk is that Sun Microsystems will co-opt Linux by adding Solaris features that the Linux community rejects--causing a splintering in the Linux world. Forrester believes that Sun won't do this. Why not? Because buyers want open standards and the freedom to buy low-cost servers. That pressure will keep Sun from co-opting Linux and risking alienating its customers.

What large companies have made strategic bets on Linux?
We've heard from plenty of large companies that are moving to Linux, but many keep quiet while they get the kinks worked out. A few have disclosed their Linux work, however. For example, FedEx runs its Web applications and e-mail on Linux; Oracle plans to migrate all its servers to Linux in 2003; and Deutsche Bank has moved a risk engine application from Solaris to Linux.

If my systems seller matches the price of Linux on Intel, should I stay with it?
Absolutely. In the long term, the cost advantages of Linux on Intel can't be beat--and will eventually kill off low-end and midrange Unix platforms. But in the meantime, companies such as Sun will do almost anything to protect their important customers--including offering rock-bottom pricing. Smart customers will take advantage of this generosity where they can and re-up for one more generation of Unix when the price is right.

Should I bet on Linux or Windows in the data center?
Both. Why? Because application teams will choose the architecture that best suits their installed base, skills and project requirements--and some packaged applications will only run on one of the two platforms. One

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way for data center pros to simplify the administrative hassle of two architectures is to use one architecture for each particular workload. For example, all Web servers might be Apache on Linux and all portal development might be done on Windows.

Should I run Linux on the desktop?
In most cases, no way. Windows--with its productivity applications, enterprise support and wealth of applications--still makes sense for most users. However, there are two situations where companies should look at Linux on the desktop. First, in high-performance Unix workstation applications like those used to calculate credit exposure or analyze oil fields. Second, when you need only a lightweight custom application portfolio--such as in retail point-of-sale or in a call center.

What's the best approach to running Linux in the data center?
For a CIO, Linux poses the same challenge as Web servers and Wi-Fi: Because the technology is so cheap, it risks uncontrolled adoption. To get ahead of Linux, CIOs should adopt a "managed deployment" strategy that automates Linux server purchasing and operations. In the short run, data center pros can keep costs and complexity down by handling the provisioning and management challenges while leaving app teams to focus on building applications. In the long run, managed deployment delivers a shared server pool that runs at lower cost and high utilization levels--and leads naturally to the automation benefits of what Forrester calls "organic IT."

How quickly can I train my Unix staff to run Linux?
Very quickly. Think of Linux as a Unix dialect. Although not every command line utility or configuration flag is identical, most Unix administrators and developers will quickly find themselves at home with Linux. The Linux shops that we spoke with say that training is a matter of days or weeks, not months.

Should I join the Linux open source community?
Probably not. Most companies should not modify the Linux code or pay employees to contribute to the open-source community. Why not? Because, most companies aren't in the infrastructure software business--they should instead focus their efforts on building custom applications that can differentiate their businesses. In fact, companies should think of Linux in much the same way they think of commercial software that they buy from a vendor.

What other open-source software should I consider?
Because companies should treat open-source software like commercial software, they should consider only open-source products that have the same level of commercial support Linux has. Today's shortlist includes the Apache Web server, Tomcat "servlet" engine and Struts framework for building Web applications.

What prevents Linux from handling large databases?
It's only a matter of time before firms can trust big workloads to Linux. Linux already has much--and by year-end will have most--of the clustering, backup and recovery, management, and threading features it needs. By 2006, HP, IBM, Oracle, Red Hat, SuSE and others will have worked the kinks out of 64-bit clusters to overcome the memory limitations of 32-bit processors. One effort to watch for clustering on Itanium 2 is the high-performance computing organization led by HP and supported by organizations like the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA).

Should I seek a Linux-only provisioning and management tool--or one that can handle Windows and Unix, too?
Unless you're running an all-Linux data center or have a walled-off section of the data center running thousands of Linux servers, you'll be better off using a heterogeneous provisioning/management tool kit from a vendor like HP, IBM or Opsware. However, if you are running a Linux-only data center, you should consider a vendor like Covalent or Red Hat that specializes in Linux provisioning and patch management. And a mainframe specialist like Linuxcare is a better bet today for handling Linux on zSeries.

Are there investment opportunities in open source?
Open source is a disruptive force in software. Does that mean that new business opportunities exist? Yes, but they're more in support of software deployment than software development. Forrester sees two new business opportunities that are accelerated by open source:

• Software in a hardware box. Linux provides a solid foundation for IT appliances to handle common tasks like XML transformation. DataPower, Forum Systems, Reactivity and Sarvega are early examples of software in a hardware box.

• Software validation services. IT today spends a huge amount of time testing patches and making sure that their business applications run on a new server configuration. However, companies would be willing to pay a provider--like Covalent or Red Hat--to do that work. Why now? Because open source simplifies the software stack so that a third party can test twice--on Windows and on Linux--and validate everywhere.

© 2003, Forrester Research, Inc. All rights reserved. Information is based on best available resources. Opinions reflect judgment at the time and are subject to change.