Big computing flexes Linux muscle

The growing influence of Linux and the open-source movement will be on display as several large companies announce products and plans at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo.

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Stephen Shankland
8 min read
Even for those who don't like it, Linux has become an unavoidable part of the computing landscape.

The growing influence of the Linux operating system and the open-source software movement will be on display this week as several large companies announce products and plans at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo. Not only will staunch Linux advocates such as IBM and Red Hat be at the four-day convention in San Francisco, so will recent convert Sun Microsystems and even Linux's sworn enemy, Microsoft.

An adaptable clone of the Unix operating system for servers, Linux has graduated from being a hobby for independent programmers to a tool companies use to advance their products. IBM and HP are working on Linux for mammoth servers. Sun is working on Linux for desktop computers as well as Intel-based servers. Oracle is working on file-storage software to make Linux databases better. Cisco is working on new storage networking software.

"They are saying 'We want Linux to do this,' then they are guiding it and pushing it in (those) directions. At the same time, they don't control it," said Alan Cox, second-in-command of the Linux programming effort overall and an employee of Red Hat, the No. 1 seller of Linux software and services and the first Linux company to hold an initial public offering.

Linux is even seeking political clout. Advocates will unfurl a legislative proposal during the show to prohibit the state of California from buying non-open source software, while programmers and government representatives from China will describe how Linux has granted their country some technological independence.

Linux began 11 years ago when Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds began work on a new "kernel," or operating system core, that integrated with software from the Gnu's Not Unix (GNU) project begun by Richard Stallman. The grassroots nature of Linux continues unchanged, with little formal governance and a culture that grants participants credentials based on the quality of their software, not the size of their employer's budget.

"I do send patches back from IBM people if I don't think they are good enough," Cox said.

Linux is an open-source project, meaning that it's free to share, change or distribute Linux's underlying programming instructions, called source code. In contrast, tight controls govern who may see and change the source code of proprietary operating systems such as Sun's Solaris and Microsoft's Windows.

During the dot-com mania, Linux was one of the hot trends that captured investors' attention. When the bubble burst, Linux companies including Caldera International, Turbolinux, Linuxcare or Eazel or VA Linux Systems struggled financially or expired outright, but Linux itself remained standing.

Linux is a natural fit for networked "server" computers that handle tasks such as managing e-mail or hosting Web sites, but it's moving in the direction of higher-powered systems that perform jobs like housing databases and reconcile stock trade transactions. Linux customers include Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse First Boston, Air New Zealand, L.L. Bean, Deutsche Telekom and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Linux server shipments and sales are lower than of their Windows counterparts and Unix alternatives, but they're growing faster, according to market researcher IDC. Linux server shipments are expected to increase 28 percent to 622,000 from 2001 to 2002, compared with a 12 percent increase to 2.8 million servers for Windows and a 5 percent increase to 693,000 for Unix. Spending on Linux servers is predicted to grow 32 percent per year through 2006, compared with 5 percent annual growth for Unix servers and 9 percent for Windows servers.

New servers
Fueling the Linux growth of those servers will be new pizza box-sized Linux servers from IBM and the first general-purpose Linux servers from Sun. IBM's will use the server-specific Xeon processors running at 2GHz or 2.4GHz; Sun's will use the cooler but less powerful Pentium III chips running at 1.4GHz.

"Our user and customer community asked us to provide a Linux system," said Neil Knox, Sun's executive vice president of volume systems. Sun has boosted many open-source projects, notably the OpenOffice desktop software suite and Microsoft Office competitor, but executives in the past often dismissed Linux as not up to the standards of Sun's own Solaris version of Unix.

Sun's LX50 servers will cost $2,796 for a single-processor model with 512MB of memory and $5300 for a dual-processor model with 2GB of memory. Sun is including its Sun Open Network Environment (Sun ONE) suite of server software--though some components of which won't be done for another six months to make sure the systems are useful. The systems use a variant of Red Hat's Linux, but also will be available with a version of Sun's Solaris written for Intel chip--a version Sun is resuming support for after backing away in January.

The Sun servers aren't just novel because they use Linux, but also because they use Intel processors. Sun and Intel partnerships have been notable more for their acrimony than their success. Knox said Sun is open to using chips from Intel rival AMD in its general-purpose servers, as it does in the Cobalt special-purpose server line from which its Linux effort stemmed.

Unlike IBM and HP, Sun doesn't plan to use Linux on mid-range or high-end servers with more than two processors, steering customers instead to its UltraSparc processor-powered Solaris servers.

IBM is pushing Linux across all its servers, from its top-end mainframes to small Intel servers. Its mainframe push is gathering backing from mainframe software companies, too: Computer Associates and BMC have begun selling Linux versions of their mainframe software, while Legato will join this week and Linuxcare has pinned its turnaround plans on mainframe Linux.

Sun, though, believes Linux can be used outside just the server market into desktop computers where Microsoft is king and software must work for more than just technical experts.

"What you will see from Sun is a lot more attention paid to Linux on the desktop, because there is a lot more growth there than anyone is willing to suggest," said Jonathan Schwartz, executive vice president for Sun's software group. Sales of Sun's StarOffice suite--based on the OpenOffice code--brought in millions in revenue for the first time last quarter, he said, and desktop computers can help drive sales of products for tasks such as e-mail or complex Web sites where Sun has more expertise.

Linux, by virtue of its open-source nature, may be freely copied and redistributed. That means a CD of Linux from MandrakeSoft, for example, may be installed on as many computers as needed.

"This is a big thing for China. The World Trade Organization has been putting a lot of pressure on them to try to get the piracy situation under control," said Jon "maddog" Hall, executive director of Linux advocacy group Linux International.

Donovan Walker, the head of a Phoenix school's computer systems, is one person who finds the price of Linux appealing. "I inherited a Windows server-client base from the people before me. As money is tight here, and we've been directed to achieve a 1-to-5 computer-student ratio, it's time for me to start looking for solutions that cost less," he said.

Dipping toes in the water
Linux's open-source nature gives companies a way to create their own Linux improvements, though with no guarantee the changes will be accepted.

For example, James Cleverdon and others at IBM have been working on support for its "Summit" servers such as the x440 that accommodates eight Xeon MP processors today and will 16 by the end of September.

The Linux support is good enough to sell the Summit servers with Linux, but the work isn't finished until the code is accepted into mainstream Linux, and that won't happen until the update doesn't crash other servers, said Dan Frye, director of IBM's 250-person Linux Technology Center. "The IBM version works. But it's not going to be done until it works on everybody's architecture," Frye said.

On July 30, IBM crossed a threshold when Cox endorsed the Summit work and accepted the software into his test version of Linux.

IBM has some Linux luminaries on its staff, among them Ted Tso, Rusty Russell and Greg Kroah-Hartman. "They have deep contacts so they know people, they're listened to, and they know some of the history," Frye said, but IBM knows it can't use those trusted Linux programmers connections to slip in whatever code Big Blue wants.

Other examples of the integration of big companies into the Linux world include the work of HP's David Mosberger leading Linux for Itanium systems and Cisco's Linux-iSCSI work to bolster its work in networking standards for storage systems. AMD is backing Linux support for its new 64-bit processors coming in 2003.

HP also is helping the Free Standards Group to begin work on standardizing how Linux and Unix computers deals with the thorny problem of connecting to printers--HP's cash cow. There also is more passive support, such as HP's backing of Jean Tourrilhes' wireless networking work.

Oracle on Wednesday will announce a new open-source effort, a "clustered" file system project that unifies how data is stored across a group of computers. The software will bolster Oracle's efforts with HP, Dell and Red Hat to push Linux into higher-end database servers.

Oracle previously released a Cluster File System for Windows. The CFS for Linux will be available on Oracle's developer Web site free for download as a developer release. In 60 days, they will have a final product available.

Companies believe creating such free-for-all projects--assuming that programmers latch on--can be a great way to quickly find out what works and doesn't in the real world.

One reason Microsoft is at the Linux show is to learn about the strong connection between those who write software and those who use it, said Peter Houston, senior director of Microsoft's Windows server product management group. "The Linux community has shown that there are people thrilled to install it, test it, crash it, rebuild it," and Microsoft has begun work to tighten that developer connection as well.

Microsoft, naturally, believes Windows and its higher-level software has major advantages over Linux and related open-source projects. Microsoft can build ties between different packages such as Web server software, server addressing software, file-sharing software and database software, Houston said, making it easier for customers to install and administer complex systems.

While Microsoft will promote its tools for running Unix programs on Windows, it isn't out to raise a ruckus. One goal is to "reduce the perception of us as myopic and polarized," Houston said. "We know we have to be responsible at this show."

The leeriness of the Linux community will be hard to shake, though.

"Software is becoming the oil of the 21st century, the difference being that this time the scarcity is entirely artificial," said Cox. "People are acutely aware that Microsoft and friends have as much power over them right now as OPEC had over people in the 1970's--and that makes them nervous."

News.com's Wylie Wong and Mike Ricciuti contributed to this report.