Linux lines up for the enterprise
Is there a place in your shop for this inexpensive Unix?
Linux, the freely distributable Unix clone, is finding a solid niche in corporations around the world. It is not Solaris, and isn't designed for running the entire IT department, but it is inexpensive, powerful, easy to install, and it can run on a huge range of "obsolete" hardware, including old Sun workstations. As a result, Linux is turning up on everything from print servers to Web servers to data collection systems.
And be sure to read our sidebar, "One user's experience with Linux." It may inspire you. (3,500 words, including two sidebars)
You don't have to imagine. Just look at Linux, a Unix clone that is spreading from the world of hobbyists and Unix mavens to the enterprise. Linux isn't Solaris, and you'd be hard put to run it exclusively in a large operation, but you can definitely run a small business or a single function server with Linux. And more and more, businesses are doing just that.
Just how many businesses are using Linux is hard to pin down. Since Linux is freely distributable, not even the companies that specialize in Linux know for sure how many users there are. However, there are some ranges that emerge from surveys.
How many people are using Linux in at least some area of their organization? "If you go by the statistics the magazines are keeping, the range seems to run between 10 and 30 percent of the respondents," says Robert Young, president of Red Hat Software Inc., a Linux company based in Research Triangle Park. Young says that the high number, about 34 percent, came from a survey of Linux users by a German magazine. He also noted that Linux use is growing. The surveys consistently show an increasing percentage of the respondents using Linux in some form. "The low numbers tend to be from earlier surveys," Young says.
Linux is an international product. Although most of the companies that specialize in distributing Linux, such as Red Hat and Slackware, are located in the U.S., the product was conceived in Finland, developed internationally over the Internet, and has a growing number of users around the world. Young says Linux is especially popular in Eastern Europe and the republics of the former Soviet Union. It is also quite popular in Asia and other developing countries.
Not even Young, however, will claim that the corporate Linux users are running their entire enterprises on Linux. Instead, they use Linux to handle specific parts of the enterprise computing load -- especially servers of various kinds for networks, intranets, and the Internet.
"The biggest single application is as an Internet server," notes Young. "From being a firewall to a Web server, Linux is, by some estimates, the second most common operating system on the 'Net." Part of the standard Linux distribution package is the Apache Web server, one of the most popular servers available. Other Linux applications range from print servers to FTP servers to data collection. Linux has flown on the Space Shuttle and logged data in Antarctica, among other jobs. As a desktop operating system it is quite functional, especially to users already familiar with Unix.
The "Linux is free" argument may be more important to impoverished students and Unix hackers on a tight budget than it is to businesses. When it comes to software, especially operating systems, "free" can represent a lot of money. Young and other Linux supporters say that it is a combination of power, stability, and features that makes Linux attractive to enterprises, not just the price.
Technically, Linux isn't Unix. It is a work-alike that was written from scratch and doesn't use anyone's proprietary code. It started as the project of a Finnish graduate student named Linus Torvalds in 1991 and grew rapidly with the help of the Internet and hackers around the world. In 1993, version 1.0, the first "production" version was released under a free-distribution license. Currently Linux is distributed under the GNU (which stands for Gnu's not Unix) General Public License, which means, among other things, that the source must accompany software. Development and maintenance is handled by a network of hundreds of volunteers around the world.
Among the items included in a typical full Linux distribution (Slackware, in this case) are the operating system, the X Free86 X Windows package, NTeX, TeX, the GNU compilers for C, C++, Objective C, FORTRAN 77, Tcl, TclX, make, byacc, GNU Bison, flex, C libraries, GNU common LISP, TCP/IP networking, SLIP/PPP, IP accounting, firewalls, Java kernel support, BSD sendmail, cnews, nn, tin, trn, inn, fvwm95, GNU chess, and the Apache HTTP server and the Arena and Lynx Web browsers.
Linux is designed for the low end of the Unix world. It runs, and runs well, in four megabytes of memory on an Intel 386 processor -- something not even Windows 3.1 could manage. A complete single-user installation with X Windows and the software development tools really needs a 486 and takes more space, but it still fits nicely in eight to 12 megabytes of RAM and 40 megabytes of disk space.
Within its limits, Linux is powerful. A Linux server can easily support between 100 and 300 users (though that takes more RAM and disk space than the single-user configuration listed above.) There is also a fair amount of Linux software available. Although Linux tends to be weak in desktop productivity applications, it comes with a full set of development tools, mostly from the GNU project, and there are a fair number of programs available for servers, networks and specialized functions such as statistical and scientific computing.
The combination of power, ease of installation, and free distribution makes Linux ideal for small jobs in a Unix shop. A knowledgeable Unix user can decide to set up a Web server in the morning and have it running that afternoon, without worrying about licensing or authorization for software purchase, or anything else remotely bureaucratic.
If the job is specialized, Linux offers advantages as well. Since source code is part of the distribution, a knowledgeable Unix programmer can modify it, add drivers, tweak the kernel, and so on to fit the Linux to the specific job.
In spite of being full Unix, Linux is extremely easy to install on X86 hardware. In fact it is much easier to install than Solaris X86. I had Slackware Linux up and running on my system in less than 45 minutes (and that's running as the third OS on a Christmas-tree box). This is because most versions come with an installation program that knows about an extensive range of hardware found in the X86 world. Linux happily accepts most common X86 processors, BIOSes and peripherals. As long as the hardware is standard, it can be expected to install off menus on the common distribution.
Some hardware requires setting software switches or using the command line. In some cases the installer may have to modify the kernel in order to get something to work. Since the standard distributions include the kernel source code, the ambitious user can modify the kernel or write her own drivers to suit specialized needs.
Perhaps the biggest problem in installing Linux comes with setting up the X Windows components. Here again, the difficulty is knowing the hardware and how to set software for it. One area of particular concern is graphics cards with proprietary interface features. Since the interfaces are proprietary, no one but the card maker can legally write a device driver to work with them without an arduous reverse engineering process. The card makers often aren't interested in this, partially because the market is so small and partially because of the terms of the Linux license, which requires them to provide source code.
Installation is also an area where the Linux distributions differ significantly. Slackware Linux, the version I use, has the reputation of being the easiest to install. Caldera is significantly more difficult, but has a more powerful collection of system administration and networking tools. Red Hat is somewhere in between.
One of the beauties of Linux is that the operating system is so cheap that you can afford to get several distributions and see which one you like best. There is even a "universal" CD-ROM available for about $150 that has three different distributions of Linux on it.
The cost of Linux
Linux is free, but most people choose to pay for one a vendor-backed distribution, such as Caldera, Red Hat, or Slackware's. In return, they get a complete package, usually on CD-ROM, easier installation, and some level of support. The cost of a Linux CD-ROM usually runs between $20 and $100, depending on the distribution. Typically the buyer gets a month or two of telephone support, with more available at additional cost. Caldera, which has one of the most complete Linux programs, offers a support contract for $1,500 a year or $60 an incident. Workgroup Solutions has a support contract for $1,000 a year, $150 an hour or $50 an incident. Walnut Creek offers only installation support.
Red Hat has established a system of support through third parties. Support providers sign on with Red Hat as Linux supporters and offer their services to the Linux public. What the support providers can't handle they can refer back to Red Hat.
The Linux development model produces a paradoxical situation. While formal support for Linux is non-existent unless you buy it from a vendor, actual support for the OS tends to be quite strong. Linux has a large, active community of supporters, many of whom write drivers and other updates and make them freely available. This means that drivers for new hardware are likely to be available for Linux even before they are available for other versions of Unix, such as Solaris.
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The same principle applies to security fixes. Linux's large network of volunteers tends to be very quick in producing patches. For example, when the Pentium II bug was discovered, Linux was one of the first operating systems to offer a solution to the problem.
Of course this also means that support for Linux applications depends primarily on the interest and energy of the people who wrote them. If the application is popular, it will be better supported by users through the Linux news groups.
There are a number of Usenet news groups where Linux users go for help. The response time on the typical question here compares favorably with the e-mail support (or even the telephone support!) from a lot of vendors. Of course this isn't as good as calling up a knowledgeable support person directly, but that kind of immediate support is hard to find anywhere these days.
Overall, in support Linux fares about as well, and about as badly, as most other Unix versions. Although Linux is easier to install and set up than, say, Solaris, it is not significantly easier to administer. Support comes mostly through the user community, via the Usenet news groups. There is an extensive collection of FAQs on things like Linux installation, configuration, and troubleshooting. Much of this material has been published in book form by publishers like Walnut Creek.
Linux in business
Linux provides the ideal basis for a quick and dirty Unix solution to a specific problem. The cost is minimal, especially if you have an old Intel or SPARC box kicking around. There are enough development tools and utilities out there to let you do useful things with them.
Ironically, one of the most popular uses for Linux on SPARC is to update older Sun boxes that originally ran SunOS. The SPARC version of Linux will run on most early Sun workstations, including the IPX, 1+, Classic, Sparcstation 5 and 10 boxes. For users who can't upgrade to Solaris, or for whom the upgrade is too expensive, Linux provides a good way to squeeze additional use out of older systems.
One of the reasons for Linux's success has been Sun's perceived lack of support for Solaris X86. In these days of Java-based computing, the product is no longer key to Sun's strategy for the desktop, and users have been complaining for years about Sun's apparent lack of interest in them -- high-profile Merced announcements aside.
One of the biggest drawbacks to Linux in business is old-fashioned FUD -- fear, uncertainty, and doubt generated by the Linux freely distributable model. To a lot of people "freely distributable" equates with "unsupported" and "hobby quality." In fact, Linux is neither. Using it does, however, require adapting to a different way of managing software. Getting the most out of Linux requires staying in touch with the Linux community to find out about things like upgrades and patches, and using the Internet news groups as a major support tool. Long-time Unix users tend to be more comfortable with this model than management, so it usually takes a major selling job to get Linux accepted as an important part of the enterprise.
FUD aside, Linux has a couple important drawbacks in the corporate world. The first is that it is not an enterprise-wide operating system. Linux does not scale well. For example, it doesn't have good support for multiprocessing (although this is being worked on and may be available soon). Further, Linux is optimized for the low end of the Unix spectrum -- X86s, older SPARCs, and the like. This isn't so much a policy decision as it is the result of the way Linux is designed and maintained. The people who work on Linux generally don't have much interest in, or access to, enterprise server hardware.
Similarly, while there are some system management tools available for Linux to do jobs like remote management, the selection and functionality of these tools is limited compared to, say, Solaris. Linux has a good selection of system administration tools, but that's not the same thing.
At the very low end, the desktop, Linux has some problems as well. Although easy to install, Linux is not intended for complete novices. The entire structure of Linux, from the distribution to the documentation, assumes some knowledge of computers in general and Unix in particular. An experienced user will probably find a Linux desktop a powerful tool but a novice is likely to be baffled without a resident expert.
Software is another consideration. Although there is a fair amount of it, not much falls in the desktop productivity category. There are programming tools galore and a lot of sophisticated applications for scientific, statistical, and engineering use. But things like word processors and spreadsheets are thin on the ground.
Linux isn't Solaris, and it won't scale across the entire enterprise. But it is a good, cost-effective implementation of Unix. The combination of very low price and the ability to run on less-advanced platforms gives commercial Linux an important and growing niche in the Unix market -- even in Sun shops.
About the author
Rick Cook divides his time between writing about the Web, computers and high technology, and novels. His most recent stories for SunWorld are "IBM bets on Java" (December 1997) "Sun turns its rays on big iron" (November 1997), and "Running Windows 95 under Solaris -- Is it smooth sailing now?" (May 1997). Reach Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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According to the system administrator, who asked not to be identified, the reason for using Linux was cost. "The big issue was we wanted to make print servers available under the funding of just any old manager," the sysadmin says. "Because we have no software cost at all and the hardware is really cheap we can put together a very capable print server for about $1200. When I say very capable I mean it can spool 200 to 300 printers easily."
The hardware is Hewlett-Packard Vectra PCs because that is the company's standard desktop machine. The Vectras are powered by Pentiums of between 120 and 233 MHz depending on the vintage. The servers are fitted with up to 80 megabytes of RAM and two gigabyte hard disks, although 32 megabytes and 1.2 gigabytes of disk is the more common configuration.
"We basically loaded a different OS on the same old systems," the sysadmin says. "It makes getting parts and repairing systems a lot easier." It also means that in an emergency, the sysadmin or his colleague can grab a part out of a nearby desktop machine to get a server up and running again.
The operating system is the Red Hat distribution of Linux. Once the OS is installed, the installer runs a shell script to transfer over the other needed files. "We have a bunch of other customized software we use," the sysadmin explains. "We have taken LPR code and modified it to work better in our applications, modified BOOTP a little, and we have a Web page that integrates with it. We just drop the software trees onto the machine and keep it up to date with RDIST."
The biggest problem the sysadmin has faced has been getting Linux accepted. "There were some people who were kind of hesitant because they said Linux was unsupported. We told them that, of course, it is supported, not by a corporation but by hundreds of dedicated volunteers."
The turning point came the day a power outage hit the data center. At the time there were two Linux systems sharing print server duty with three Sun OS machines. "After the power outage the Linux servers rebooted right back up but two out of three Sun machines had problems with disks and didn't come back." While the Linux servers and the lone working Sun struggled to handle the load, the data center staff brought the other two Sun servers back online, a process that took several hours.
"The people in management heard a couple of machines didn't come back and they immediately assumed they were Linux boxes," the sysadmin said. "There was a big furor up in management and by the time I got the e-mail they had basically decided "no more Linux." I told them the problem was with the other machines and suddenly there was silence. After that we kept installing Linux boxes. We've had no operating system-related problems in 18 months."
In many ways this shop is a classic Linux installation. The systems were selected with cost as a major criterion, they are running as dedicated servers handling single tasks within the organization and the people who installed and maintain them are both knowledgeable about Unix.
If you don't have a friend with Linux, you can download it from a number of sites on the 'Net. One of the most popular FTP sites is http://sunsite.unc.edu/pub/Linux/ (also http://sunsite.unc.edu/pub/Linux/docs for the documentation). There are a number of other sites that maintain the current distribution of Linux as well. Probably the most painless way to get Linux is to purchase a CD-ROM from one of the vendors, such as Red Hat, Caldera, or Slackware. The price will vary from less than $20 to several hundred dollars, depending on the distribution and features on the CD-ROM. This is not free, but it saves downloading time, unpacking and so forth. The CD-ROM distributions come with installation utilities that speed up even the complex parts of the job.