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Is Linux ready for prime time?

While SAP and Oracle are rushing to support Linux, their business software-making rivals say the operating system is unproven and not yet ready to run mission-critical applications.

Kim Girard
Kim Girard has written about business and technology for more than a decade, as an editor at CNET News.com, senior writer at Business 2.0 magazine and online writer at Red Herring. As a freelancer, she's written for publications including Fast Company, CIO and Berkeley's Haas School of Business. She also assisted Business Week's Peter Burrows with his 2003 book Backfire, which covered the travails of controversial Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. An avid cook, she's blogged about the joy of cheap wine and thinks about food most days in ways some find obsessive.
Kim Girard
While SAP and Oracle are rushing to support Linux, their business software-making rivals say the operating system is unproven and not yet ready to run mission-critical applications.

Cautious vendors, including J.D. Edwards and PeopleSoft, say their customers have yet to demand Linux and they're not ready to jump into the fray.

"It's more of an academic curiosity," on the part of customers, said Paul Barker, J.D. Edwards's director of technical marketing. "They ask, 'Is Linux ready for prime time?' "

Not yet, Barker maintains.

"While the OS looks good in places there's a lot more required," he said, including a roadmap for standard installation, setup, configuration, and management, along with necessary tools.

So far, he said, Red Hat is the main vendor selling operating system products for Linux. But the firm's version differs from other Linux versions available in the public domain.

A PeopleSoft spokesperson said the company's customers aren't requesting Linux versions of the company's products, so they're not planning on a Linux port of their application software at this time.

Ironically, customer demand is exactly the reason SAP executives say the company will ship the company's core R/3 applications on Linux in the third quarter of this year.

Customers are already using Linux, and should have an alternative to "="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Microsoft and other platforms, SAP executives argue. The German-based ERP software giant is expected to unveil Linux system tools and support plans at CeBIT 99 later this month.

Oracle, an early supporter of Linux, is also porting its suite of business applications to Linux and plans to ship products in the first half of this year.

How best to use ERP software on Linux is up for debate. Joshua Greenbaum, head of Enterprise Applications Consulting in Berkeley, California, said. Linux has some appropriate uses in the ERP world, including on Web servers to provide access to host-based applications, on departmental servers, and on e-commerce servers.

But Linux can't replace high-end Unix or mainframe systems that host a company's most important data and mission-critical applications.

"Linux can't be the strategic backbone of mission-critical ERP systems simply because large enterprises really need a commercial relationship with a vendor to get the [service] guarantees they need," he said. "Linux doesn't give you that. Freeware or semi-freeware doesn't give you the comfort level you need for recourse in a business or legal fashion if there are problems," Greenbaum said.

Any effort to port J.D. Edwards's OneWorld ERP software to Linux requires operating system-related development assistance, technical, and marketing help to make a successful product, Barker said. None of this is generally available for Linux, Barker said.

"At issue is what 'version' of Linux should be supported?" Barker said in a note outlining the company's position on Linux. "And, who could assist in this effort?"

Nonetheless, analysts said the advancement of Linux could provide software buyers with a valuable card when negotiating Unix and NT licensing agreements.

But for now, adoption of Linux among ERP software customers will probably run less than 5 percent over the next year or two, analysts agree.

Scott Lundstrom, an analyst at Boston-based AMR Research, said it will take about a year to determine whether Linux is going to garner the necessary support to become a tier-one platform for companies that use ERP software to automate everything from the human resources department to the warehouse.

"As more specialized services become available, [Linux] will gain some share," he said. "But a lot more of the vendor community will have to commit."

For now, corporations internally developing on SAP's R/3 platform, for example, will be able to use Linux to save some money, he said. But support for the operating system is not sophisticated enough to handle the operations of a big SAP customer running a sophisticated 24X7 environment.

"In that kind of environment," he said, "nothing can go down. Ever."