Linux seeks starring role
- By Dan Caterinicchia, Dan Caterinicchia
- Aug 14, 2000
When a physicist at a leading federal research facility needed to modernize
his lab's computer systems about five years ago, he knew that PC hardware
had advanced enough to be a suitable replacement for his outdated machines,
but the software situation was not as rosy.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology Center for Neutron
Research (NCNR) needed computers that could run for months at a time, performing
experiments and making precise measurements. At that time, there was no
commercial PC software available that offered such uninterrupted performance,
said Przemek Klosowski, a physicist at the NCNR.
"Unix was up to the task but wasn't available on PCs," Klosowski said.
"So we looked at Linux, and it's been a godsend for us. It's cheap and ubiquitous,
and reliable and robust enough to support our environment."
Linux, the open-source operating system that is gaining ground in the
commercial world, has a small but growing legion of faithful users in the
federal market. It has even been entrusted to run some mission-critical
government applications. But whether it can reach beyond a narrow range
of scientific and Internet-centric applications to become a fixture in general-purpose
computing remains to be seen.
The operating system is based on and shares many characteristics of
the Unix operating system, which has been around since the late 1960s. But
unlike traditional Unix-based operating systems, which are developed and
controlled by individual companies, the Linux kernel itself is now composed
of more than 1.5 million lines of code that users in the open-source community
can study and improve. Enhancements to Linux are distributed throughout
the community and subjected to a strict peer review process that examines
the code changes for bugs and flaws.
But this folksy image of geeks banding together to build a better operating
system and give it away for free belies some of the very serious Linux systems
the government has created and has on the drawing board.
For example, the Energy Department's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
uses a very large cluster of Linux-based systems that amounts to one of
the largest computers in the world. And the DOE's Fermi National Accelerator
Laboratory in Chicago uses Linux to run data visualization and high-end
numerical applications, as well as to support large-scale data storage clusters.
In addition to the DOE and NIST labs, just scratch below the surface
of government information technology inventory lists and you'll find pockets
of Linux in the U.S. Postal Service, NASA, the National Institutes of Health
and many other federal agencies.
Al Gillen, research manager for systems software at International Data
Corp., said Linux has "quietly gained acceptance" in the private sector
and the government in the past few years.
"IT managers didn't even know they were using it until they found out
it was on an e-mail scrubber or router. They had no clue," Gillen said.
"The technical people found a problem and used Linux to solve it, and it
made its way into an organization that way."
Gillen said Linux is getting a lot of attention right now but that any
talk of it suddenly replacing commercial operating systems is unfounded.
"Widespread replacement strategy is not as effective as a long-term migration
strategy," he said. "It's not going to explode, but it may phase other things
out over time."
Like a growing number of Linux users, Klosowski said his department
uses Linux for general office work, such as writing papers and making calculations.
But Linux really shines in the technical and scientific realm, particularly
because of its flexibility.
"In our environment, we don't have off-the-shelf options for many of
our problems," Klosowski said. "Our research instruments are unique, and
we have unique requirements. Linux allows us to play and tinker with everything
in there. It's open source, so all the technology is exposed and available
for change. We value that flexibility more than the availability of [commercial
Linux also has some big fans at the National Institutes of Health. Christopher
Wilson, a research fellow at NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders
and Stroke, has been a Linux user since 1992, when he was in graduate school.
Currently, his office uses Linux for all desktop text processing, graphing,
data analysis and image editing, as well as for computations on experiments.
The office also uses Linux to run its World Wide Web and e-mail servers.
"Cost is always a major issue for me," Wilson said. "Working for the government,
I always want to give the taxpayers the maximum bang for the buck. Linux
is stable and costs little or no money. At NIH, we have site licenses for
certain [commercial] software packages, but it's a personal thing for me
because I like software to be fixed in a reasonable time."
Wilson also said that Linux breathes new life into older PCs with 386- and
486-class processors. And it works equally well on computers with Pentium
II and III chips. "Linux works on all these platforms, and that can't be
said for Mac [OS] or Windows," he said. "There's also a greater concentration
on security and updating patches."
Gotthard Saghi-Szabo, a senior research scientist and IT manager at
the Carnegie Institute of Washington, has set up that firm's entire network
on Linux. CIW, a nonprofit organization, uses Linux for its firewalls and
file servers and on about half of its 100 desktops.
Linux is used everyday for writing articles, Web browsing and computational
research, Saghi-Szabo said. It is also used for chemical and physical computations,
modeling, and star and planet formations in conjunction with CIW's work
with NASA, he said.
"As a nonprofit research institution, the availability and price/performance
ratio of Linux were very appealing," Saghi-Szabo said. "If there's a problem,
because it's open source, we can fix it here, or a solution comes really
fast through the Internet" because so many people are working on it.
Saghi-Szabo echoed Wilson's comments about Linux's compatibility with
a range of hardware and software. "You can deploy Linux and fit it into
the existing infrastructure without any problems, whether it's Unix, Mac,
Windows NT or 98," he said. "Linux works for all of them, and there's no
extra money needed for proprietary software."
Red Hat Inc. was the first mainstream commercial Linux provider. Red
Hat and similar companies sell accompanying software tools and technical
support that make it easier for users to work with Linux. Red Hat has since
carved out a government niche for itself and believes the notion of "transparent
technology" is the key to making Linux work in the federal space.
"One of the things that makes democracy and government work at all is
transparency," said Michael Tiemann, Red Hat's chief technology officer.
"Most things are public records for better or for worse, and because of
the openness of archives, we're willing to trust the government as much
as we do.
"With software, it's the same sort of situation. In proprietary systems,
you don't have the ability to look inside or audit. With open source and
Linux, it's open to everybody, and anybody can review the software to make
changes and satisfy requirements. Instead of large amounts of duplication,
you get large amounts of innovation."
Howard Levenson, federal sales manager at VA Linux Systems Inc., another
provider of integrated Linux solutions, said the operating system offers
better reliability for both Web serving and high-performance computing than
its competitors. "Linux is free, but that's not why most people choose it,"
he said. "They choose it because it's more reliable."
He also said the open nature of Linux makes it a natural choice for
security-minded organizations. For example, there is no room for any "Trojan
horses" or secret tricks to be built in by programmers.
"There's a certain ignorance in closed-source [software] because you
can't [audit] what you can't see," Levenson said.
On the downside, even Linux users acknowledge that the operating system
lacks the polish of software written for profit.
"The services you can run on Linux are not up to the maturity of the
[Microsoft] Office suite," said Martin Hudson, vice president of Development
Info-Structure, an Arlington, Va.-based solutions provider. "The [graphical
user interface] needs to be more sophisticated, and the day-to-day applications
The company set up the Federal Exchanges Data System, a Linux-based
data management system being used by more than a dozen departments and 28
independent agencies to track their international exchanges and training
Alhough IDC's Gillen said he doesn't think Linux will suddenly take
over computer rooms everywhere, he did say that in the still-emerging areas
of embedded systems and handheld devices, as well as all things Internet-related,
Linux stands to grow considerably.
"The technologies aren't defined yet for things like Web phones and
[personal digital assistants]," Gillen said. "These are places where Linux
has a real opportunity. Linux grew up on the Internet, and anything based
there will either originate or be available immediately on Linux. For anything
Internet-related, it's reasonable to assume Linux will have a lot of success."