by Ben Worthen

Linux: Ready for Mission Critical Use

Jan 01, 20017 mins

The I.S. department at Grede Foundries, a $600-million-a-year metals company in Milwaukee, was stuck with an IBM 390 mainframe. After years of developing skills on the big iron, changing business needs forced a move to the Web, which shifted Grede’s dependence to Unix and Windows NT servers. Soon the little boxes were multiplying faster than rabbits, and the mainframe-focused shop was moving further away from its traditional strength.

To stop the bleeding, Grede’s Manager of Operations Rich Smrcina installed Linux on the old system, which now runs Web, file, mail and other serving tasks in the hope that doing so will let Grede consolidate the functions of the proliferating NT and Unix boxes. Best of all, the company’s programmers can’t tell the difference. “The image now of the mainframe is all the gray beards hunkering around the green screen,” says Smrcina. “Well, I’m not gray, I don’t have a beard, and I don’t use a green screen anymore. I could show you a terminal session, and you wouldn’t have a clue it was a mainframe—[Linux] is that good of a port.”

Underground Growth

Grede isn’t the only Linux success story. While some contend that Linux has made headlines but little else, evidence suggests that Linux is finding a niche—and quite possibly a large one. A poll of 2,092 IT professionals by reveals that more than 68 percent of companies have or intend to deploy at least one Linux system. And according to IDC (a sister company to CIO’s publisher, CXO Media), Linux was second in server operating environment by shipments last year with 24 percent of the market.

Yet when IDC sized the operating environment market at $11 billion, Linux’s share was a mere $60 million—just a rounding error away from zero percent. Windows had higher revenues in the first three days of 1999 than the entire Linux market had all year.

Of course, rating freebie Linux by sales dollars against operating systems that cost thousands may not provide the most accurate picture of the market, but the comparison does have merit. “When someone is going to pay $3,000 for a Windows NT or Windows 2000 license, you can bet she is going to use it,” says IDC Program Vice President Dan Kuznetsky. “If she pays $2 or even $50 or $150 for a Linux package, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is going to get used—or it could mean it was used 1,000 times by the organization. We just don’t know how to count that.”

Support Issues

Such enumeration problems leave Linux to rely more on anecdotes than statistical analysis to measure its success, but according to Kuznetsky, few companies use Linux for mission-critical systems yet. Understandably, CIOs want to know that their crucial software will be supported, and relying on an unpaid programmer community for that support is a risk not many have been willing to take. And Linux support organizations such as LinuxCare have found it tough going in trying to win over the corporate market.

Despite the hurdles, Linux continues to gain major vendor support, and the anecdotes are starting to add up. In the past six months, dozens of software vendors have launched Linux initiatives (and even Microsoft recently invested in Linux-producer Corel). Oracle has released Linux versions of its application server and 8i database. Dell offers Linux on its Power Edge server, and IBM sells Linux versions of all its hardware. Because it is open source, the actual Linux these vendors are marketing is essentially the same product. Early adopters see this as an advantage.

“What [open source] means to me is that I am not buying software, I am buying service,” says Dave Durkee, CIO of ASP Netledger, a Linux user. “I can get [software] from this one, that one or the other one; really the only differentiator is the support offerings of the companies that are selling this stuff.”

Taking the Plunge

It wasn’t long before Durkee had a chance to sample the Linux service he had purchased. Linux performed great in tests, but when Netledger built its data center containing 500 Linux machines running several hundred Oracle databases in March 2000, Linux “started barfing everywhere. Oh my god, it was really painful,” Durkee says. After some investigation, the problem appeared to be in the Linux network file system (NFS) kernel, the piece of the operating system responsible for some basic server functions. “I called VA Linux and said, ’I need you to send somebody over here to figure out what the hell is going on with this NFS thing because it is just choking all over the place.’”

Within a week and a half, VA Linux had rewritten the kernel, and the data center has worked flawlessly since. And because Linux is open source, the improvement was made available to all Linux distributions. As such, it can benefit every Linux user, present and future. Of course, startup Netledger had the luxury of building from scratch—not always an option for large brick-and-mortar companies. And while Durkee knows he took a risk with an unproven technology, he thinks his success has served as a proof of concept for established companies that are reluctant to take a chance with Linux on their mission-critical systems.

Those that do take the plunge may also discover a surprise benefit around the corner. Linux is effectively free, so many high schools and universities are making it their operating system of choice. And, to put it bluntly, the kids dig it. “I was at Linux World in San Jose, Calif., and there were dozens of kids—11, 12, 13 years old—collecting all this literature and looking at the demos,” says Bill Claybrook, research director of Linux open-source software at Boston-based Aberdeen Group. “In two or three years, when all these kids are coming out of college and high school, the number of people who are able to do Linux development are going to overwhelm the number of people who are doing Unix and NT development simply because of that.”

And Linux itself will continue to mature. An upcoming kernel revision is scheduled to include clustering ability within the next year, and the next release (which should be finalized by the time you read this) is slated to have symmetric multiprocessing capabilities to support higher-end hardware.

It’s Out There

Even if your Linux strategy boils down to “it isn’t for me,” that doesn’t mean the operating system won’t find its way into your shop. Linux is already inside most companies in some form or another and will continue to spread—with or without the CIO’s support. And the influx of Linux talent during the next few years will force CIOs to give Linux a bigger role if internal proliferation doesn’t make it happen first.

Despite the seemingly bright future, Linux isn’t going to replace NT as the dominant platform anytime soon—even on the servers where Linux has a reputation for being more stable than the competition. “Companies that have a huge investment in Microsoft products aren’t going to throw it out,” says Claybrook. “They’re going to say, ’Why? What does Linux have that’s better? I’ve got everything set up for Windows, I’ve got all my people who know how to use Windows, I’ve got all the support people who know how to use Windows and know how to solve problems.’ If I were a Gillette or Fleet Bank, it would be very hard for me to go in and say, ’OK now we’re going to use Linux.’”

But Grede’s Smrcina says all you need to bring Linux into an already complicated IS department is a compelling reason. For Grede, that reason was eliminating dozens of servers in favor of an existing mainframe that can pass information at 300MBps to 500MBps while avoiding wire or card problems that would cause interruptions on the NT boxes. Smrcina also recently put up a Linux-based dynamic naming system server and network monitoring software, and he plans to add DB2 connectivity later. Linux is still a minority operating system at Grede, but it is a growing one. And Smrcina doesn’t think it will be long before Linux is entrusted with mission-critical applications. n