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Verizon switches programmers to Linux

The telecommunications company says it saved $6 million in equipment costs by moving its programmers to Linux computers.

SAN FRANCISCO--Telecommunications company Verizon Communications saved $6 million in equipment costs by moving its programmers to Linux computers, the company said Wednesday.

The company cut costs by replacing programmers' Unix and Windows workstations with Linux systems that run OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office, said George Hughes, a Verizon executive overseeing the work. The average desktop cost dropped from $20,000 to $3,000 per developer, he said in a talk at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo.

Cost cutting is one of the key arguments behind adoption of Linux, a clone of the Unix operating system. Linux is available for free or at low cost from companies such as MandrakeSoft. A copy may be legally installed on any number of computers, unlike Windows or versions of Unix such as Sun Microsystems' Solaris or Hewlett-Packard's HP-UX.

But one Verizon employee familiar with the conversion said the equipment cost savings were outweighed by problems getting code written on one system to run on another.

"We've saved money on the front end but burned money on the conversion process, so we're still behind," the employee said. Fundamental differences in how Intel and HP processors treat binary numbers meant that some software was very difficult to translate, leading to delays that kept newly purchased equipment idle. "It's now working, but what a mess," the employee added.

Air New Zealand is another company that went with Linux to save costs, Chief Information Officer Andrew Care said. The company is replacing 150 existing Compaq Computer Windows servers and a 150 more that would been purchased in the next 12 to 15 months with an IBM z800 mainframe running Linux. The overall cost of ownership of the mainframe is more than 30 percent less, Care said.

The company is running lower-end jobs, including the Bynari e-mail server software and the Samba file-sharing software, Care said, but plans to move more critical jobs such as flight-booking software on Linux systems later.

Microsoft, unsurprisingly, sees price tags in a different light: Mainframes are expensive, and Microsoft's office software is easier to use than alternatives, according to Peter Houston, senior director of Microsoft's Windows server product management group.

Houston is skeptical that it's more expensive to use low-end Windows-Intel servers than running those tasks on high-end mainframes. "We're talking about some of the most expensive (computing power) in the industry," he said.

One useful feature available on mainframes is the ability to easily set up and tear down a test Linux server without having to buy new hardware, Care said. With the mainframe's ability to run numerous separate operating systems simultaneously, programmers can easily try out new projects. Air New Zealand plans to use 150 Linux servers per mainframe, but the company tested the ability to run 10,000 copies of Linux simultaneously doing real work, Care said.

On desktop computers, Houston said that StarOffice or its open-source sibling OpenOffice may be "good enough" for basic tasks but are harder to use than Microsoft Office. Microsoft's studies of the 11 most frequently used operations in Microsoft Office took on average 2.5 times less time than in StarOffice, he said.

Microsoft's arch enemy Sun Microsystems--the company that released the 5 million lines of StarOffice code as open-source software--plans to sell Linux for some corporate desktop computers, while companies such as Lindows and CodeWeavers are working to make it possible to run Windows software on Linux machines. Generally, however, the technical nature of Linux has helped to keep it out of mainstream use.

Verizon cost savings came not only from replacing Windows systems but also from buying Linux computers that were cheaper than Unix workstations, Hughes said.

The Verizon programmers are creating software that runs on the company's Unix servers from Sun and HP, Hughes said. Linux, a clone of Unix, is similar enough that programmers don't need the more expensive Unix workstations, Hughes said.

Red Hat, the dominant seller of Linux software and services, competes with Microsoft but is aiming much of its sales efforts at replacing Unix systems.

There are problems, though. Sometimes there are differences between Linux and Unix that are a concern, Hughes said. In addition, the Intel workstations from HP that the programmers use have 32-bit processors, whereas the Unix servers where the software ultimately runs are 64-bit machines, meaning there could be compatibility problems.