What you need to know about Linux now.|
By Louise Fickel
Let the trumpets blare: Linux has arrived. Once a tool used only by technical gurus, the maverick operating system developed to thwart Microsoft's stranglehold on the world's computers now powers some of the world's largest business and research applications. From government agencies such as the U.S.'s NASA to companies such as Japan's mega-retailer, DEODEO, organizations everywhere are entrusting their mission-critical applications to Linux. Meanwhile, many of the world's largest hardware and software manufacturers—including Compaq, IBM, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Oracle—have been scrambling to add support to their products as quickly as possible. Even entire countries such as the U.S. and China have expressed interest in "the other operating system."
Why are so many organizations now incorporating Linux into their IT landscape? After all, the prospect of migrating to a different operating system raises numerous technology and business issues. Plus, Linux represents a radical departure from proprietary operating systems (OSs) such as Microsoft Windows NT and UNIX. With its open-source foundation, Linux is wide open to people everywhere for viewing, modifying, and copying. What can be gained by adding Linux to your OS lineup? What are the risks? Should your organization begin gearing up for this new world, and if so, how?
In 1991, Linus Torvalds, a student at Finland's University of Helsinki, decided he didn't want to run Microsoft DOS or Windows, but he couldn't afford other commercial operating systems. Torvalds wrote the Linux kernel as open source code for all the world to see and put it on the internet so other programmers could easily contribute to the project. (Torvalds is quick to point out that Richard Stallman, the legendary MIT hacker who founded the Free Software Foundation, wrote code for many of the tools and utilities that comprise Linux.)
Programmers were the first to recognize that Linux's stability, reliability, performance, and low cost made it an ideal candidate for the server environment. Linux is extremely stable. Indeed, many claim that it's more stable than Windows NT. Reliability is often measured in months rather than days. Linux is fast and performs well, even on inexpensive computers. Since the code is open, it's easily customized and optimized. Enhancements are distributed online and subjected to rigorous peer reviews. What could be more cost-effective than software that can be downloaded free from the internet?
Critics, however, say Linux poses several risks. Many business applications that companies rely on are still not available for Linux. (Of course, the world's most popular office suite—Microsoft Office—may never support Linux.) Support, therefore, can be problematic. The current user interface isn't as "friendly" as Windows or Apple's Mac OS. Security is also an issue. Some people, such as MacDonnell Ulsch, a senior manager of technology risk devices at PricewaterhouseCoopers, argue that Linux's openness makes it a prime target for security problems. Others say that modifications made by programmers can create havoc within an organization.
Meanwhile, the issue of total-cost-of-ownership can go either way. On the one hand, using free software that runs well on inexpensive, older hardware means you minimize hardware and software costs. However, if your organization is Windows-based and your employees are unfamiliar with UNIX, your staffing budget could skyrocket overnight.