Is Linux ready for prime time?

Is Linux headed for the government mainstream? It's been around for a long time as a niche player, but moves such as the National Weather Service's decision to replace Unix on workstations at all of its weather forecast offices with a Linux-based system could mean the tide is changing.

Barry West, NWS' chief information officer, believes open-source Linux has progressed to where it can be taken seriously as a major contender in agencies' choices of operating systems. The decision last year by IBM Corp. to put $1 billion into Linux development and the more recent announcement by independent software vendors to support Linux show that the backing for Linux has finally arrived.

The clincher, West said, was how much money NWS projected it would save using Linux.

"Linux does not necessarily provide any better performance than the various flavors of Unix that are out there," he said. "But Linux gives us [purchase-and- support] cost savings of almost 3-1 over Unix, and that's just something we can't ignore."

The funds freed up by the move to Linux can be invested in researching better weather forecasting methods, West said, "which, after all, is what we are supposed to be here for, not for maintaining computer systems."

Linux use in government is reflecting what is happening in the commercial market, according to Merry Beekman, federal marketing manager for Red Hat Inc., the dominant Linux vendor. The operating system is starting to move into organizations' main infrastructure, she said, after years of being relegated to science and engineering departments and to the "network fringe."

One of the best indicators of that increased interest, she said, has been "the skyrocketing attendance" at the company's training programs to certify engineers in Linux.

"Centralized IT operations are looking to consolidate servers and to redeploy them for other purposes," she said. "They are also looking to cut costs, and in a big way, so the overall advantages that Linux offers have suddenly become very attractive to these organizations."

Other indicators of the government's growing interest in Linux, she pointed out, are such developments as the Defense Department heavily analyzing and testing Linux, the development of a hardened version of Linux by the National Security Agency, and major agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Institutes of Health and NASA all moving to deploy Linux in their infrastructures.

For Linux to move into the broader market, said George Weiss, vice president and research director for enterprise systems and storage at Gartner Inc., the operating system must show continued improvement in reliability and its ability to scale. It must also add enhanced features for rapid deployment, efficient change management and the ability to virtualize, or pool, resources that may not be physically linked.

Those changes will come from the cumulative support of application and middleware vendors, he said. Without it, an IT manager will say "the hell if I'll put Linux" into critical areas of an organization's business, Weiss said.

In that respect, things are definitely looking up for Linux. In June, Oracle announced it was building support for Linux into its database products. Late last month, storage software vendor Veritas Software announced Linux versions of its clustering and network-attached storage software, as well as targeted support for Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM, Intel Corp. and Red Hat products.

How quickly this turns into increased federal sales is not yet clear, according to Mark Thoreson, senior technologist with GTSI Corp. It's still a "pretty niche market" on the federal side, he said, and there's a continuing perception of Linux as a specialty player that is not as strong as other Unix tools.

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@ mindspring.com.

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Linux vs. Unix

Market watcher Dataquest Inc., a unit of Gartner Inc., is forecasting a worldwide growth in Linux from $1.26 billion in server shipments at the end of 2001 to about $8.4 billion in 2006, an annual growth rate of 46.2 percent.

How does that compare to Unix? Total growth for Unix, Gartner Dataquest estimates, will rise from $3.4 billion to $23.6 billion in the same period, an annual growth rate of 47.3 percent — statistically identical.

Meanwhile, the market research company is predicting an annual growth rate in the overall operating system market of about 3.5 percent, from $49.8 billion to $59.1 billion during the same period.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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