Maybe it’s the cute little penguin mascot, but a lot of people still have trouble taking Linux seriously. Yet many companies are betting their businesses on the bird, and coming out on top. And they’re not just little guys.
Take, for example, IBM. It is putting US$3 billion on the table in the
form of a new wafer fab plant whose production control systems all run on Linux systems. It is, said Chris Pratt, manager of e-Server strategic initiatives for IBM Canada, the biggest single investment in the history of New York. “”It’s one of our most strategic and largest investments.””
“”We also have numerous examples of customers betting their business,”” he went on. “”Probably one of the most visible representations of this would be in the Point of Sale (POS) arena. Mark’s Work Wearhouse have put all of their POS terminals across to Linux, and what’s more visual to your customers than your point of sale devices? Those are real prime-time stuff. If people have got your stuff and they’re standing in a lineup and they can’t pay you for it, they get unhappy.””
Point of sale, with 185 per cent growth over last year, but still only four per cent of the total market, is but one area in which Linux is making inroads. According to IDC, in the first quarter of 2003 the Linux server market was “”the brightest spot in the worldwide server market,”” posting a 35 per cent increase over Q1 of 2002, with US$583 million in revenue.
“”Unit growth and factory revenue in the Linux market continue to climb, driven by increasing functionality for Linux server hardware and software and intense competition between all the major server vendors,”” said Jean Bozman, research vice-president of global enterprise server solutions at IDC.
“”It’s been a wild couple of years on the Linux front,”” noted Craig Downing, vice-president, product management at Accpac. “”Three or four years ago it was all about blue hair and body piercing. Some of the best opportunities now are coming from trade shows like Linux World. People come having made business decisions on Linux, and are shopping for Linux applications.””
Wall Street is one business area where Linux has already found a home. Major firms such as Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch have already deployed it. In fact, said Sam Greenblatt, senior vice-president and chief architect of Computer Associates’ Linux technology group, there probably isn’t a single major Wall Street firm that isn’t using Linux for high-scale computing applications.
“”Linux is absolutely real (on Wall Street),”” he said, citing one financial application that takes eight hours on a RISC system, but only 35 minutes on a cluster of Linux blades.
“”We’re definitely seeing real traction in the Linux arena,”” agreed Downing. “”A couple of years ago, it got a foothold in organizations as pirate servers or appliances. Now it’s gaining credibility as a database server. I think most vendors are making a back office play, and I think most customers agree.””
Linux is definitely establishing a foothold in the back office — and in the backs of cars — at Redmond, Wash.-based VAR Pogo Linux’s customer sites. The four-year-old company is working with the University of California in San Diego on a project to help car manufacturers make the vehicles more automated. Researchers needed a Linux-compatible solution that fit inside a car, and Pogo Linux delivered.
Pogo Linux founder and CEO Tim Lee said, “”When we started, we hedged our bets on both Windows and Linux. Linux has a lot of momentum now — as IT budgets have been cut, people want more for their money.””
“”Linux fits in any arena of business where connectivity, communication and stability are important,”” added Phil Tonnellier, president of Sundre, Alta.-based software developer Linux Canada. “”Linux was built around communication and it is very easy to set up networks with Linux. Our installations throughout the north are a testament to the fact that in mission-critical environments where support is not readily available, Linux is a great choice.””
But despite its many charms on the server side, Linux may not be the desktop OS of choice. Said Chris Kleisath, director of engineering at mobile solutions developer iAnywhere Solutions, “”Developers want Linux versions (of products) more for their infrastructure applications. We haven’t seen desire for it on the desktop from our own customers.””
Pratt agrees. “”Linux is a server operating system for the most part. Linux on the desktop has typically been the domain of very dedicated people. It’s ‘good enough’ computing.””
‘Good enough,’ perhaps, for someone in order entry, said Downing, but “”I have no delusions that people should abandon Microsoft. I think it should be an intelligent decision. It’s expensive to spend $700, or whatever it is, on Windows XP and Office XP on people who seldom leave the order entry system.””
However, he added, “”for $49 I bought (Linux-based) ThinkFree Office, and with the exception of a couple of power user utilities, it would absolutely work. I think as these products mature a bit and users gain experience on the operating system, it will be as good as Windows 95 was for most users. As accounting and CRM and other applications are delivered on the Linux desktop, I think we will see people getting a lot more careful about spending that $700 on a Windows desktop.””
“”Two or three things are critical for Linux to have the floodgates burst open,”” added Lee. “”It needs an office package that is 100 per cent compatible with Microsoft Office, either from a third party, or from Microsoft. It needs an accounting package, and none of the core packages are available now. And it needs multimedia. Right now, setting up Flash in the Mozilla browser is not as easy as it is in Windows.””
Yet despite these shortcomings, Linux is enjoying some high-profile desktop successes. The City of Munich, Austria, for example, has decided to replace 14,000 desktops with Linux and open source software, a move worth US$35 million.
Linux is slipping into smaller devices as well as servers and desktops. Already, Sharp, in partnership with IBM, has launched a Linux-based PDA, and Matsushita Electric, Sony, Hitachi, NEC, Panasonic, Royal Philips Electronics, Samsung, Sharp and Toshiba have recently announced the Consumer Electronics Linux Forum, or CELF, a consortium designed to adapt and advance the operating system for use in all consumer electronics. It plans to discuss and formalize requirements for extensions to Linux to meet the needs of devices such as audio/visual products, handhelds and cellular phones. CELF will publish these requirements and will accept and evaluate open source solutions that support to meet the published requirements.
Moving into embedded devices is in the cards as well, said Greenblatt, who is currently testing out a Linux-based refrigerator from LG Electronics, but it creates a whole new set of challenges. “”We’re working with Sony and LG and BMW to make sure our tools are compatible (with embedded Linux),”” he said. “”It creates a whole new brand of management. It raises the bar, and makes a whole new world.””
Linux is a whole new world for resellers, too.
“”It’s a question of the type of reseller,”” said Kleisath. “”If they’re selling an application based on Linux, they need expertise in-house to support customers who don’t have the expertise. With Linux systems, if anything goes wrong, the customer is more likely to phone the reseller for help, so the reseller has to keep up with changes in the operating system.””
Added Downing, “”Resellers owe it to their customers to give them options. If they haven’t jumped in yet, now is a good time. The first thing they should do is try Linux in their own offices. Once they’ve learned that it really works, and doesn’t crash, th