IT Shops Weigh the Pros and Cons of Linux

The Linux operating system, once virtually unknown outside a small community of loyal users and developers, is making a lot of people take a second look at their information technology strategy.

The operating system has been around for about a decade and has been quietly gaining popularity among IT professionals. The benefits are pretty well known: Linux costs nothing to license and supporting tools are inexpensive; it resembles Unix enough that most IT professionals find it easy to use; and, being open-source code, it has tens of thousands of devoted programmers working to improve it.

With more and more hardware and software vendors coming out to support it, observers say Linux is worth considering, even for government agencies that have shied away from it in the past.

Government agencies have "the same problem everybody else has...they have to set up a Web site, or a collaborative project, and there's no budget for it," said Sandra Potter, research director of Linux Services for Aberdeen Group, a Boston-based market research firm. "Well, they'd have to be living under a rock to not at least think of Linux."

But IT shops looking at Linux still must weigh those well-known pros with significant cons, industry observers say.

For starters, despite support from major vendors such as Computer Associates International Inc., Corel Corp., Oracle Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc., Linux still lacks the third-party application support enjoyed by Microsoft Corp.'s Windows and Unix. Linux probably offers at least one commercial or shareware package for any job you're doing, but for a wide variety of choices, it still can't beat Windows.

Additionally, the graphical user interface probably is not sharp enough, particularly for Linux operating systems that run on desktops. Red Hat Inc. and Caldera Inc., which sell Linux software and utilities, have introduced improved interfaces in the past few months, but reviews have been mixed.

Linux also cannot handle multiple processers as well as Unix. Although standard Unix servers can be configured with more than 100 processors, Linux runs into trouble after four, according to observers.

Still, most of those objections can be addressed with a simple ingredient: time. Open-source aficionados and commercial software vendors alike are working to improve support, expand software offerings and improve user interfaces.

Early questions about Linux are coming up less often. For example, companies selling Linux have been, until recently, relatively small, which raised concerns about support. But with companies such as IBM Corp. and Silicon Graphics Inc. backing Linux, that concern is fading.

Also, organizations have worried about security. "The sentiment seems to be 'If the source is available, people can hack it,' " Potter said. But that concern is illusory, she said. In fact, security may be greater because there is an entire population testing the system for back doors and other weaknesses.

Linux also has earned a good reputation for its Unix-like reliability. Garden Grove, Calif., one of the early Linux adopters in the local government arena, uses two Intel Corp.-based Linux systems to run its networks, e-mail and databases. Since the systems were installed four years ago, "we have never had downtime because of OS failures," according to Bob Shingledecker, Garden Grove's information systems manager.

And Linux continues to benefit from the loyalty of its early adopters, with many of them taking an almost paternal interest in seeing the operating system succeed. "There is a lot of momentum, passion and capability behind it," said Vivek Mehra, vice president of product development for Mountain View, Calif.-based Cobalt Networks Inc., which builds server appliances based on Linux.


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