Linux's appeal grows as applications flourish
- By Michael Hardy
- Apr 04, 2005
Open-source operating systems will not spread unless users have applications to run on them. As Linux matures and customers more seriously consider adopting it and its cousins, developers are constructing programs that increase the operating system's appeal.
This snowball effect is contributing to the rising profile of open standards. Some applications are entirely open source, and their code is available for developers to examine and improve. Others are proprietary systems designed to run on open-source platforms. In either format, such applications add versatility and usefulness to the operating systems.
The December 2003 release of the Linux 2.6 kernel erased many of the impediments that had limited Linux, said Derek Rodner,
senior program manager of Linux enterprise server marketing at Unisys.
"That kernel had a number of new features in it that really made it robust and ready for the enterprise," Rodner said. Because of the growing availability of applications, Unisys debuted in the Linux market in 2004, equipping servers with Novell's SuSE Linux Version 9.
"Our goal has been to build an entire Linux ecosystem," he said. "It's more than just having products or technology. What we're trying to do is build everything that goes into that space." Unisys has since formed partnerships with Red Hat and other open-source firms, he added.
Linux powers a city government
Officials in Kenosha, Wis., are among those who have been convinced to give Linux a chance. Working through the management firm Comsys, town officials installed Linux servers provided by Penguin Computing to run business applications to manage town business.
However, Ruth Schall, Kenosha's director of management information systems, wasn't a Linux skeptic.
"We never had Microsoft in here," she said. "Prior to installing Linux for our desktop applications, we were running off of a Unix system. We were using a text-based word processor, text-based spreadsheets."
She has been slowly moving the office functions from Unix to Linux in the past five years, starting with the Web and e-mail servers, she said. Now, city employees use a variety of graphical Linux applications for word processing and other common office functions.
The system looks similar to Microsoft Windows, she said, adding that employees have not had problems understanding it.
"People have a whole mixed bag at home," Schall said. For example, "some of them are using WordPerfect and some are using Word, some are using something different. I don't think that's something I worry about."
Penguin Computing is known for Scyld Beowulf, which is Linux clustering software that enables users to link multiple processors together. Scyld Software is a Penguin Computing subsidiary.
"We've gotten more sophisticated on how we approach the federal market," said Matt Jacobs, vice president of sales at Penguin Computing.
Linux is a power player in the scientific research market, he said, and that's where his company has put its energies.
At the desktop level, however, Linux lacks the plug-and-play convenience of Windows, Jacobs said.
"That said, it is a fast-growing segment of the market," he said. "We don't do as much business at the desktop space, but that's also partly due to business decisions we've made. We don't want to be competing with Dell for single desktop workstations."
Linux has also become much more common in utility computing, e-mail servers, databases and application servers, Jacobs added.
As the technology that underlies Linux advances, the operating system becomes more versatile and software developers respond with new applications. For example, Linux was a bad choice for database systems as recently as three years ago, before developers created a journaling file system for it. This type of file system tracks the dates and times that users create files, and it ensures that users can change only the latest version of a file, he said. This function was the final piece that Linux needed to compete as a database platform.
There has been "an overall maturation of Linux providers in the market," Jacobs said. "Finally, a company that wants to deploy Linux can deploy it at every tier of its infrastructure. Linux vendors are now one-stop shopping."
Sun challenges desktop office suites
Sun Microsystems' OpenOffice, an open-source version of the company's StarOffice suite, runs on Windows, Linux, Solaris and Apple Computer's Macintosh OS X. As an open-source competitor to desktop suites such as Microsoft Office, "OpenOffice has been a wild success," said Manish Punjabi, Sun's group marketing manager for both products.
Users have downloaded more than 4 million copies of OpenOffice from Sun's Web site, and government organizations, including some overseas, are showing more interest in the product, he said.
Some foreign government officials think the open-source product can help them avoid piracy of licensed software, he said. Piracy is a smaller problem in the United States, but among U.S. government organizations, Sun officials can market the product's cost and the company's reputation, he said.
Agency officials are "looking at Sun as providing secure applications and infrastructure," he said. "We have almost instant credibility. Security is a fundamental design point to us, as opposed to an afterthought."
Developers have recently improved the integration of OpenOffice with Microsoft Office, which is accelerating customer interest, Punjabi said. The product also uses an open file format based on Extensible Markup Language, he added.
He said he is increasing efforts to market OpenOffice to agency officials.
"Large organizations don't migrate their infrastructure overnight," he said. "But they're definitely aware of the fact that this is a compelling alternative."
A guide for the perplexed
Optaros, a company launched last year, is trying to guide organizations through transitions to open-source software. The company's founder and chief executive officer, Bob Gett, and his team believe government organizations, among others, are good choices for his firm's software consulting services.
Department of Veterans Affairs developers have built a system that has become "one of the poster children" for the open-source movement, said Robert Lefkowitz, vice president of research and executive education at Optaros.
An open-source health care management system, based on the VA's Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VISTA), has been adopted by public- and private-sector organizations, he said.
"If you're a hospital [official], it's a credible alternative to buying packaged software," he said. "There are already a number of young companies that are selling software like that. There is a company now from which one can buy the VISTA software."
Open-source vendors generally make money by selling services that accompany their software. However, Lefkowitz said, that is also true to some extent for proprietary software.
"With commercial software, it looks like you're paying for the license," he said. "But what would you pay for software if the company you're buying it from said there would never be any upgrades or fixes, that you're buying the intellectual property as is? If it never changes, it's not worth a whole lot."
When talking to executives or information technology officials at agencies and companies, Lefkowitz said, one aspect he emphasizes is the degree of user control that open-source technology provides.
"When something goes wrong, if you have access to the source code, it's easier to troubleshoot the problem," he said. For "organizations that are focused on high availability and high reliability, the ability to take it apart and look under the hood yourself may be attractive."
Lefkowitz has seen rapid growth in the popularity of open-source software in recent years, but he said vendors of traditional commercial applications are not likely to disappear.
In addition, vendors are beginning to create hybrid products. For example, Apple's operating system is open source at its base with proprietary additions. Apple's Safari Web browser is built the same way.
Partner networks keep the apps coming
Red Hat, one of the most prominent Linux distributors, opened a federal office in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. Company officials have successfully developed their government business in the past several years, partially because of the company's network of software partners that develop applications, said Paul Smith, Red Hat's vice president of government sales operations.
"Linux wasn't going to be able to achieve mainstream status until we had this huge partner network," he said. Now, more than 300 software developers are part of the network, and more than 1,000 applications are certified for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, he said.
Silicon Graphics Inc. officials are increasing their repertoire of open-source applications for the company's high-powered computer systems. Through a partnership with software developer Eruces, company officials have released a set of 64-bit technologies that cut the lag time involved in transmitting encrypted data by a factor of eight. The Linux-based Eruces Encryption Framework for Enterprises runs on SGI Altix servers.
Linux's dominance, particularly in the server market, is marked by more software developers submitting their products for Altix certification, said Thomas Stanley, director of intelligence and homeland security at SGI.
"We had 200 or so applications that got certified in the first couple of years," starting in 2003, he said. "Since then, we've been getting applications on the order of dozens per month. In the past, we would have seen a dozen over six months."
The operating system is becoming well-entrenched at agencies, he said.
"Today, in my area of responsibility, [agencies] have all adopted, at some level, Linux as an approved operating system," he said. "You will see different degrees of deployment, but they've all accepted Linux, agreed it is a path forward for them and feel that the security questions will be answered or already are being answered at a good pace."