Linux comes of age

Low cost and stability make open-source system an attractive choice

As recently as two years ago, the use of Linux in the federal government was relegated to a scattered group of loyal technical types focused mostly on complex scientific tasks. Today, however, the open-source operating system is beginning to find its way into more mainstream applications.

A growing number of agencies, attracted by the operating system's extremely low cost, high stability and high reliability, are using or considering using Linux for running databases, storage systems, e-mail, enterprise resource management solutions and even security. They include the Census Bureau, the U.S. Postal Service, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the White House and the Defense Department.

The advanced multiuser, multitasking operating system, introduced in 1990 by Linus Torvalds, is open-source, allowing thousands of developers to update, enhance and debug it at will.

"Linux has always been a grass-roots movement, from the bottom up," said Robert Hibbard, program manager for Red Hat Inc. federal systems, which provides and supports the operating system. He noted that growing industry support for Linux, along with time and education, have gone a long way toward increasing general acceptance of the operating system. "Now it's slowly starting to where there's that top-down recognition and approval that will make it really be seen as a legitimate choice," he said.

Cost remains the top benefit that attracts government organizations. "For $29.99 or $49.99 or whatever you pay for the operating system, you've got pretty much everything that you need," said Al Gillen, research manager for systems software at IDC. "A comparable license for any other environment would cost $1,000 or more, depending on what you're using. Those are some major savings."

Still, there are plenty of challenges yet to be overcome, including a deep-rooted government concern over the underlying security of Linux (see box, Page 38) and the fact that Linux is not widely available on the General Services Administration schedule. Still, as the following case studies on the Bureau of the Public Debt and the National Interagency Fire Center illustrate, many agencies are taking baby steps toward enterprise use, starting with small applications that affect many and taking it from there.

The Optimal Choice

The Bureau of the Public Debt saved more than $330,000 in start-up costs when it chose Linux over other operating systems for its Dynamic Web Publishing project, but that's not what initially prompted officials to choose the open-source route. Their reasons had more to do with compatibility.

The Dynamic Web Publishing project validates and publishes all its data using Extensible Markup Language (XML). The bureau uses the open-source Apache Web server software to process XML. "Since Linux seems to be the development base for all Apache-related activities, we felt like it would make sense to do our development in Linux," said Steve Ryan, an Internet programmer analyst for the Bureau of the Public Debt. "So we turned to it because it was openly available with no cost and no licensing fees and also because it's reliable and state-of-the-art."

As a franchising entity, Ryan's office develops systems that can be used by other federal departments. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has already deployed the Dynamic Web Publishing application, and the Bureau of the Public Debt will migrate to it by this fall.

The new program, which runs on an Intel-based platform, enables its users to consolidate Web data in one location, making it easier to make changes across all Web pages because of organizational changes or new regulatory directives. Linux is used as the foundation for the application, database and Web production servers.

"We have found Linux to be a very flexible operating system, and as a result, we can be that much more responsive in our development efforts," Ryan said. "Plus, because we're able to provide this at a lower cost due to the cost-efficiencies associated with Linux and the related software that's available through open source, that benefit is passed on entirely to the customer."

Still, Linux is used only on the production side of the Web effort. Web servers that interface with the public run on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT, mainly because the technical group that supports those systems is more versed in Windows NT security. "I do believe that Linux does require a higher level of skill in system administrators to provide the same level of security and to do the custom modifications that are required," Ryan said.

He noted that an overall concern about Linux security also added to that decision, but he believes that the concern is misplaced. "Because the code is available to everyone, it's reviewed by a broader audience and the exploits are taken care of more readily," he said.

Linux or Bust

When the National Interagency Fire Center—run by seven federal agencies involved in coordinating and supporting efforts to deal with wildfires and other natural disasters—decided to develop an application using the Lotus Development Corp. Domino server that could track and analyze incidents, officials didn't have to think too long about which server operating system to use.

It was almost a case of Linux or nothing, according to Rick Mills, chief of information resources management in the Interior Department's Office of Aircraft Services. His office, which manages the new application, "had no budget for hardware or software," he said. "An obvious strength of Linux is the low cost. If we need technical support, the cost is less than for other operating systems."

The application, known as Safenet, enables firefighters, agency personnel and citizens to report an incident by filling out a Web-based form. In the short term, the information is quickly routed to field offices for corrective action and then posted on the Internet for public viewing. In the long term, incidents are analyzed for trends to help develop better training programs and more precise reporting standards.

Although cost may have driven the decision, performance has made it a sound one, Mills said. Even without real experience with Linux or Unix, he and his team found the operating system easy to set up and configure. Compared to other servers running Windows NT, "we have had to do little to maintain the Linux server," he said. "Most of the downtime has been due to operator error. This means there has been very little overall downtime for the Safenet application, and it's been a more reliable application for the end users."

Mills' biggest complaint? "I can't find more time to become more proficient in Linux," although, he added, that has as much to do with the system's reliability as his workload. "Because it has caused no problems, I have spent little time with it."

Mills said he would like to explore the possibility of using Linux for future enterprise applications, but he is hesitant to make any commitments. "We couldn't add more Linux applications without first becoming better able to support it," he said. "It will have to be determined on a case-by-case basis."

Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached at hbhayes@cfw.com.

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