Linux Puts On A Business Tie

Analysis: At LinuxWorld, Linux showed that it isn't just for techies anymore, it's ready for the enterprise.

By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols
Sm@rt Reseller

March 5, 1999

Linux isn't just for enthusiasts anymore. At least, that's the message from this week's LinuxWorld show in San Jose, Calif. If Linux someday manages to topple the Windows empire, software historians will likely point to this show as the turning point in operating system history.

Consider, major OEMs such as Compaq Computer, Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard and IBM are currently shipping, or are about to ship serious server hardware, with Linux pre-installed. They, along with the Linux developers Caldera Systems Inc. and Red Hat Software Inc. are quickly moving to offering 24 x 7 technical support. Other firms, like Linuxcare already offer 24x7 Linux support for OEMs, resellers and users. Translation: Support is no longer a question mark for corporate buyers, who weren't willing to bet their support needs on electronic word of mouth over the Internet.

Application support also has been addressed. Databases? All the big boys--IBM DB2, Oracle Oracle 8 and a host of others--have moved or are moving their top database management systems (DBMSs) to Linux.

You want more? IBM is porting most, if not all, of its middleware to Linux. Other development tool ISVs are expected to follow suit. Even without them, Linux, drawing on the rich heritage of GNU development tools and other free software development programs, such as PERL, has an almost embarrassment of basic application development riches.

On the network management front, Computer Associates International is bringing Unicenter to Linux. And, Tivoli Systems CTO, Tom Bishop, says the company has Tivoli for Linux running in its labs. Tivoli will deliver the software when demand is high enough, probably late 1999. Sources inside Tivoli tell Sm@rt Reseler, though, that the software may arrive sooner. With the CA announcement, sooner would appear to be better.

For the basics of file, print and Web serving, Sm@rt Reseller has demonstrated that the last generation of Linux distributions run rings about Windows NT Server 4.0 SP 4.

On the high end, SAP AG will support its their flagship R/3 on Linux. How can an operating system with R/3, the Rolls Royce of enterprise resource planning, not be considered as a serious operating system alternative?

Are some of these just "me-too?" announcements? Almost certainly. But, and here's the important part, in talking with LinuxWorld vendors, Sm@rt Reseller found that all of their announcements were more than just vague technical promises. The initiatives are being backed by serious commitments to market these Linux solutions. Simply put, enterprise Linux is real.

Linux at Home

Linux is also making a serious move towards the desktop. Between the release of Gnome 1.0 and Corel's commitment to a desktop Linux, Linux's success on the desktop is emerging as a geniune possibility.

To succeed commercially on the desktop, Linux needs a friendly user interface, more pre-bundled Linux PCs and more end-user applications that won't require much of a learning curve from Wintel desktop users. All of this is happening. It's not here yet, but by the first of next year, for open-minded users with no technical expertise, Linux will be at least as serious a choice as MacOS is today.

Stormy Weather Ahead?

Let's be straight about this, technically, Linux is an excellent operating system. Clearly, serious business applications are moving to Linux at an incredible rate. Practically, though, all the Linux commercial distributors are revving up their services from a very cold start.

As Linus Torvalds said in his keynote, Linux installations are increasing at the rate of almost 10 times a year, technical support expertise, distribution systems, marketing, training, and channel plans are still in their infancy. There will be a teething period where all the business and support sides of Linux as a business will be downright painful for the Linux companies, their resellers and our customers.

Beyond that, tension is brewing in the Linux community itself. There are concerns that Linux, like Unix before it, may start splitting into incompatible versions. We've already have seen a bit of that with the lag between developers on the adoption of the newer and more powerful GNU C library, glibc, while others continued to use the older libc library. Far from just a matter for programmers, binary programs that use glibc won't usually run on Linuxes still using libc. This problem, as everyone moves to glibc 2.0, is going away. Some fear, however, that was a taste of what the future might bring to Linux.

In the end, with the example of Unix history before them and the tendency of the open source model to correct incompatibility problems, we suspect this will be more of a red herring than a real worry.

But, there's another one. As Linux becomes a commercial operating system, albeit one based on the free software model, some developers are concerned about this change. Part of Linux's charm for many of its programmers is that it is a maverick. It is, to quote one popular Linux T-shirt, "the operating system with an attitude." But, how much 'attitude' can an operating system have when it's fully supported by IBM?

For many resellers, this seems a ridiculous question. It's not. Many Linux developers are highly distrustful of the corporate world. Some of them are also asking why are they working for free on an operating system, when the fruits of their labors will help CAI, IBM and SAP's bottom line. Not everyone is a Linus who doesn't mind not making a penny from Linux. Other developers, of course, are welcoming the arrival of big business to Linux because it will allow them to take their hard-won skills and turn them into high-paying jobs.

Will any of this stop Linux? We don't think so. But, as powerful as Linux is an operating system, don't kid yourself that the Linux companies and allies are going to give you the full business services that more established companies and concerns can give you. They will someday, but not today.

Copyright 1999