The dawning of Linux

Linux, the Unix-like operating system that has been a computer scientist's plaything for the better part of a decade, is beginning to get some serious attention from federal agencies.

The Defense Department, intelligence agencies, the General Services Administration and other organizations are running pilot projects and even small-scale production jobs using Linux. The operating system powers computers acting as World Wide Web servers, mail servers and occasionally desktop devices.

Why not? Linux is a robust, reliable operating system that can go years between failures, and it has the support of tens of thousands of programmers. And best of all: It's free.

Don't start shredding your Microsoft Corp. Windows NT and Unix licenses just yet, though. Linux has some problems. It has trouble handling multiprocessor environments, and it lacks third-party applications. And despite some recent major advances, many users dislike its user interface.

Linux was written and developed by computer scientist Linus Torvalds in 1991. On the surface, it looked like just another version of Unix.

But the operating system is not Unix, asserted Erik Troan, director of engineering for Red Hat Software Inc., a Durham, N.C., vendor of Linux. It is very Unix-like, he acknowledged, but it does not share the AT&T Unix code base.

Torvalds made the new operating system part of the Open Source movement. That means anyone can download the software from the Internet without charge. Users can modify the kernel in any way, as long as those changes are delivered back to the community at large.

The user community took Linux to its heart. "In those early days, it really was an operating system by geeks, for geeks," said Don Heffernan, deputy chief information officer at GSA. "But over the years, users and vendors have added the kinds of user interfaces and applications that have made it a possible production operating system."

Why has the operating system proved so popular? Some say it has been tapping into users' displeasure with alternatives. "Users are just disgusted with Windows 98 and NT," said Cheryl Mahoney, inside sales manager for Linux reseller Spectrum Systems Inc., Fairfax, Va. "They want something else."

Most federal users are familiar with Unix, and the Unix-like nature of Linux makes it a comfortable alternative, Mahoney said.

Also, users who have worked with the Linux code have an almost paternal interest in the operating system's success. "There is a lot of momentum, passion and capability behind it," said Vivek Mehra, vice president of product development for Cobalt Networks Inc., a Mountain View, Calif.-based manufacturer of server appliances based on Linux.

Mark Wollschlager, technical services director for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria, said the court is using Linux to operate its new intranet server.

"It's free, you can run it on just about any old computer that's lying around, and it doesn't require procurement and competitive bidding," Wollschlager said. "It appeals to systems people because they can play with it, and it doesn't cost an arm and a leg."

The system also has "an astounding reputation for reliability," said Jonathan Prial, director of integrated solutions and Linux marketing for the IBM Software Group.

But Mark Hopkins, government programs manager for applications software vendor Corel Corp, said that the fact that Linux is free is driving its popularity and will keep it at the forefront for years to come.

Because Linux is free, and because any number of users can use the same CD to install the software, it is difficult to get a good read on the total number of users. According to a Web survey of registered users at the Linux Counter site, there probably are about 11 million Linux users worldwide.

Certainly, the number is going to grow rapidly. International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass., reported that the number of commercial Linux shipments will grow at twice the rate of all other server-based operating environments through 2003.

Sandra Potter, research director of Linux Services for Aberdeen Group, Boston, said no one has begun to track the use of Linux in the federal government. But she guessed that most federal agencies have at least passing familiarity with the operating system.

"The government has the same problem everybody else has," Potter said. "They have to set up a Web site or a collaborative project, and there's no budget for it. Well, they'd have to be living under a rock to not at least think of Linux."

IBM's Prial said more people are using Linux than is commonly believed. "It's more than a couple of boxes, but it is not yet under the watchful eye of the CIO," he said.

Where Linux is installed as a working system, it is almost always at the server level. According to Prial, 95 percent of all Linux installations are Intel Corp.-based. He said 65 percent are running Web server applications, 15 percent are running mail servers, and 15 percent are running file-and-print servers.

That jibes with the observations of Joe Klemmer, who, before his retirement this year, installed a Linux server for the U.S. Army Publishing Agency (USAPA). "The big case for Linux, especially in the government, is on the server end," Klemmer said. "It will work fantastically as an application server. You can replace NT servers with Linux boxes and still serve Microsoft hardware."

In a few situations, Linux is being used for large-scale work. For example, NASA's Beowulf project is using Linux in the agency's massively parallel environment. But for the most part, Linux is in the testing and evaluation phase.

Howard Levenson, business development manager for Silicon Graphics Inc., the workstation vendor that recently announced support for Linux, said most federal users have loaded Linux in their home machines before attempting to make it work at the office.

Heffernan is one who has Linux running in his basement. "We [at GSA] haven't been actively using Linux yet," he said. "But we did decide to keep an eye on it, and it has come a tremendous distance."

Before year's end, GSA will run a test project with Linux. Heffernan said the agency will not replace anything with Linux but will run it in a noncritical environment - probably with Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes - to see how it performs with low-end backup servers.

The district court in Alexandria is using Linux on an intranet server, according to Wollschlager. He said price was a major consideration. "We could have done it several other ways, but it would have been about twice as expensive to go with NT, our other choice," he said. "The Cobalt Networks [Inc.] server appliance system the court bought this spring cost as much as just the NT server would have cost."

The system, based on Red Hat's version of Linux, is easy to use. In fact, it is being managed by someone who is not a Unix systems administrator, Woll-schlager said.

Klemmer said the use of Linux by USAPA was accidental, born out of a requirement several years ago to put together a Web site. There was no support and no funding. It had to be done in an ad hoc way.

Klemmer, who had been working on Linux since 1991, was able to do the whole thing in two days. Some mainframe applications, such as tracking and selling orders, were migrated down to the Web as Klemmer created a new front end. The system was installed on a spare Intel Pentium 133 computer.

"I fielded the entire thing to the company at a total cost of 145 hours and a RAM upgrade," he said. "It didn't cost the command any money at all."

Use started slowly, but it increased rapidly when an electronic ordering system was included. Today, the site has had more than 82,000 hits.

Bill Josey, chief of USAPA's Information Management Division, Alexandria, said the organization uses Red Hat's Linux on two of its three Web server platforms, and it uses AIX on the third. He said he has been tempted to make things more consistent by running Linux on all three platforms, but he said he does not want to fix anything that is not broken.

"It's free, and that's the difference between going to a contractor and [using] open source," Klemmer said. "For $50,000, we were able to field this entire online publication effort. Another organization has spent $750,000 - for NT - and they still haven't gotten it to work right."

GSA's Heffernan said he has been amazed at how quickly Linux has become competitive in the operating system market. He chalks that up to the open-source philosophy - not necessarily the fact that the operating system does not cost anything but the fact that the source code is totally open to anyone.

The open-source approach means that users can make what they like of Linux. "Open source means you can customize to your heart's content," said Benoy Tamang, vice president of marketing for Caldera Systems Inc.

It also means there is a vast cadre of people working to improve the product. "When you're involved with Linux, you get into that attitude of sharing knowledge," Klemmer said.

This sharing gives the user more control, Red Hat's Troan said. "If you buy an OS with proprietary components, only the vendor can help you; you're locked in to a huge dollar investment," he said. "If they get a support contract from Red Hat, and we fail - you can go to one of our competitors."

Hank Schiffman, a strategic technologist at SGI, said Linux's modularity enables users to build in only features they need and nothing else. If a server does not need the graphics associated with a desktop, users need not include it, he said.

"Because Linux is built for components, you can remove a lot, and it still runs well on a low-end system," said Derek Belar, Linux brand manager at Corel. "And you'll still have the OS you need to get the applications you need up and running."

Despite all that fiddling, the operating system remains uncannily stable. Vendors such as Caldera and IBM report users who have been running Linux for two or three years without ever crashing. For Web servers and mail servers especially, this proves an attractive point.

Not So Fast

Although interest is high, sales have not been strong, said Spectrum's Mahoney, who said she believes the operating system lacks a user base.

The companies selling Linux have been, for the most part, relatively small. That has raised concerns about support for big customers. Without a proven track record, start-up companies are viewed with suspicion when it comes to supporting the products they sell.

The government has one unique concern about Linux: It has never been certified as Unix-compliant. Because some contracts - especially those with DOD - require Unix certification, Linux may be shut out of some large deals. Ironically, Linux probably could be certified as Unix-compliant with a little tweaking. But to date, no one has wanted to expend the time and money to achieve this.

There's also concern about security. "The sentiment seems to be, 'If the source is available, people can hack it,' " Aberdeen's Potter said.

But she also asserted that the concern is illusory. In fact, Linux security may be greater because of an entire population testing the operating system for back doors and other weaknesses.

Others argue that the graphical user interface isn't good enough for desktop work, a concern that Red Hat's Troan considers outdated. Both Red Hat and Caldera have within the past few months issued new GUIs for Linux. Although both are said to be improvements compared with prior versions, at least one user commented that the new ones "stink too."

Linux also is weak in symmetrical multiprocessing. Although large Unix servers can be configured with more than a hundred processors, Linux is not really designed for more than four processors. And the operating system lacks some extensions for large-scale storage solutions - another factor that makes it inappropriate for enterprisewide solutions today.

In addition, the lack of application software is a concern. Vendors are beginning to port software over, but the process typically is a slow one. Mike Miller, senior vice president and general manager of North American sales for Computer Associates International Inc., Islandia, N.Y., said there has not been a great demand for Linux applications. So even though the company has ported its Ingress database from Unix to Linux, it is waiting for the market to determine what other software it should port over.

Developments continue apace. Caldera's Tamang said his company hopes to make Linux "more PC friendly for the Windows crowd" and to make installation easier.

In the application area, Corel has ported WordPerfect 8 and other office applications to Linux, and CA has made several announcements concerning management software.

Third-party support is generally getting stronger. For example, IBM has agreed to support Red Hat's Linux, which should satisfy some concerns.

The enthusiasm about Linux to some degree reflects the attitude toward Unix a decade or so ago, and some fear that it could suffer the same fate of fragmentation and marginalization.

SGI's Schiffman insisted that the Linux community will not let that happen because interoperability is vital. "The community won't accept or allow anybody to break the momentum," he said.

Aberdeen's Potter said momentum will definitely include the federal government - for financial and security reasons. "The government needs to look more at open source. Open source has got to get on the procurement list," she said.

-- Lazar is a free-lance writer based in Tenafly, N.J. He can be reached at jl4hire@ix.netcom.com.

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At a Glance

Status:

Although its use is not widespread, the Linux operating system has garnered significant interest among federal users because it costs nothing and is considered extremely robust and reliable. There is no reliable count of federal Linux users, but most federal users appear to be using it on Web servers.

Issues:

Linux has never been certified as Unix-compliant, a major obstacle to its widespread use within the federal government. Also, users have documented problems using Linux in multiprocessor environments and have criticized its graphical user interface. In addition, there have been few third-party applications for Linux.

Outlook:

Promising. Analysts report commercial Linux shipments will grow at twice the rate of all other server-based operating system environments through 2003. The operating system has the support of a passionate community of users and developers intent on its success.

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