Opening doors to open source
Migrating to Linux shouldn’t involve major disruptions
- By Brian Robinson
- Apr 04, 2005
Los Angeles city officials recently pushed for a switch to open-source software so that they could save more than $5 million in licensing fees. They felt the money could be better used for other services. In making the switch, they joined a growing chorus of support for open-source technology from cash-strapped federal, state and local government agencies.
There seems little doubt that the open-source movement is finally gathering the steam many people predicted for it. Market researchers at IDC say the Linux operating system, for example, is no longer a niche phenomenon.
In a recent study they prepared for Open Source Development Labs, IDC researchers put global Linux revenues at just less than $15 billion in 2004 and projected them to soar to nearly $36 billion by 2008.
And yet, even though some areas of the government have used Linux for years, many are still reluctant to make a move to open-source software, mainly because of the perceived risks of what they still see as an unproven, weakly supported system compared to the ones they know best, Microsoft Windows or Unix, for
"There will always be people who are naysayers about Linux and who want to stick with Microsoft," said Kapil Lohia, architect for Linux development at Computer Associates International. "We have no trouble with Microsoft, but Linux does work, and as long as the right steps are used [to install it], it will succeed."
What to watch for
What you shouldn't do, Lohia and others said, is adopt Linux for Linux's sake. Instead, administrators must first evaluate the mix of applications and the environment in which they are being used when considering Linux. That approach will also give a realistic view of what converting to Linux will cost.
For example, said Scott Handy, vice president for worldwide Linux at IBM, if the applications you need are written for both Windows and Linux, then moving to Linux is the same as any other operating system upgrade. But if you are running something that only runs on Windows, such as Microsoft Exchange, moving can be more difficult.
"In migrating to Linux, 15 percent of the costs go to porting the applications and 35 percent to testing and tuning" the result, Handy said.
"But the only time you get into a lot of custom work is if an application is suboptimized to a particular operating system," he said.
In mixed environments, it's better to tackle the easier tasks first, he said.
Generally speaking, moving to Linux from Unix is far easier than moving from Microsoft systems. Unix and Linux are cousins, after all, and people with Unix experience generally have little trouble moving applications to Linux, experts say.
But you can get overconfident if you think that's all you need to do. When officials at the National Weather Service (NWS) upgraded their old Hewlett-Packard Unix workstations to Linux running on Intel-based systems, a process they began in 2000, they found Linux-specific expertise would have helped.
"The migration was fast and our own Unix people were well able to do the recode and recompiles," said Deirdre Jones, chief of systems engineering at NWS. "But we hit a problem that delayed us by about four to six weeks."
It turned out that the problem was with the Linux kernel, which needed to be replaced, she said. Officials probably would have identified the problem much faster if they had Linux expertise.
NWS eventually cultivated a team of Linux-savvy people, Jones said, and they plan to complete the migration later this year.
Having people with Linux expertise on staff mitigated much of the risk when city officials in Bloomington, Ind., migrated their information technology enterprise from Unix to Linux. That expertise saved retraining expenses that otherwise could have wiped out the savings from making the switch.
"The Unix environment is not that different from Linux anyway, but the fact that we had a number of people with Linux experience already was significant," said Rick Dietz, Bloomington's director of information and technology services.
However, organizations also need people who know the ins and outs of the existing systems, Jones said. New and old systems will have to co-exist for a time during any migration, she said, and that could lead to conflicts such as input/output issues that must be resolved in both systems.
Systems management concerns should be among the first elements of preparing for a migration, said Paul Smith, vice president of government sales operations at Red Hat. In the past, organizations usually deployed the technology first and worried about management later, but the order should be reversed, he said.
Likewise, security is something that needs attention all the way through the migration, particularly with a move from Microsoft. Red Hat's version of Linux has subsystems embedded in it that enforce priority-based controls, which could conflict with the other environment's security, Smith said.
"But the thing to remember in any migration is that we really are not talking about a major disruption of the enterprise," he said. "The process is evolutionary, and you don't have to replace every server immediately with Linux. All the systems can co-exist, and this can evolve smoothly over time."
Despite the fact that Linux is now in the mainstream, the general rule when bringing any new technology into an organization is that the biggest concern is managing the risk, Lohia said.
"We always recommend that people start with something that is obviously manageable," he said. "Then the risk is controlled."
Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.