Linux: Along With Growth, Growing Pains

Linux has come a long way in the last few years. Not only does it dominate the Web server market, but it runs on roughly one-third of the world’s 500 fastest supercomputers and is expected to overtake Apple Corp.’s Mac OS this year as the world’s second-most popular desktop operating system.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with the operating system. While each new release adds more features, it is still an “almost there” platform. Gartner, Inc. (Stamford, Conn.) is advising clients to limit its use of Linux to peripheral applications.

“We feel comfortable with the deployment of Linux for low end infrastructure tasks such as Web, cache and proxy servers,” says Gartner Vice President Andy Butler, who works out of Gartner’s UK office, “but the ability of Linux to be a reliable database server is still being tested.”

Then there are the factors outside of the operating system itself, but which determine whether it can be used in an enterprise settings.

“Linux involves significantly more than just downloading and installing the software,” says Candle Corp. (El Segundo, Calif.) Assistant Vice President Pete Marshall. “Issues such as performance monitoring, patch management and security require both time and training.”

And the Linux vendors recognize there are problems.

“We need to become trusted, credible and viable suppliers,” says Mike Evans, Red Hat, Inc.’s (Raleigh, N.C.) vice president for channel development. “Enterprises need to see a stable Linux platform with robust support and trusted roadmap of upgrades rather than changes every month.”

So, what are the major shortcomings and what needs to happen to eliminate them?

Top Ten

While everyone can have their own opinion on what needs to be improved about Linux, and each of their opinions may be valid, let’s take a look at the approach that IDC took. In February of this year it surveyed 1,000 clients on the barriers to adopting Linux. It then aggregated these surveys and presented the top 10 issues mentioned.

“Note how many times management-related issues and support costs show up,” says Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of system software research for IDC.

The top 10 surveyed items in order were:

  • Lack of in-house Linux skills. This was the top item and was mentioned by 38% of the respondents. Companies have Unix and Windows administrators, but Linux ones are in short supply. This is getting better over time, however, as more students hit the job market after learning the operating system in college and existing IT staff becomes familiar with it.

  • Lack of applications. This applies at both the server and desktop level and it ties into some of the other problems listed below. It is also a “chicken and egg” type problem. No one wants to develop applications unless there are customers and customers don’t want to buy an operating system unless there are apps to go with it.

    “Before you can have the applications, you need the hardware support and middleware that allows you to perform effective systems management,” says Juergen Geck, SuSE, Inc. (Oakland, Calif.). “That is a major reason for lack of desktop adoption.”

  • Yet another platform to support. Each new platform increases costs and complexity. There has to be a compelling reason to add a new one.
  • Staff/support costs. Linux administrators, when you can get them, command a higher salary than Windows administrators and staffing expenses are by far the largest expense in owning and operating servers.
  • Hard to manage. It has only been within the last two or three years that Linux has gotten widespread support in management packages such as IBM’s Tivoli, BMC’s Patrol and Computer Associates Unicenter, but that support is now starting to approach the levels available for other operating systems.
  • Lack of vendor support. This again ties into the newness of the operating system and lack of market penetration. Time and increasing market share will address this.
  • Viability of Linux distribution suppliers. Red Hat had $27 million in revenue during the first quarter of this fiscal year and posted its first profit ever — one cent per share. Microsoft, in contrast, had income of $8.07 billion in its most recent quarter — 300 times Red Hat’s — and has some tens of billions sitting in reserves. It certainly helps to now have IBM and HP money backing the OS.
  • Lack of database/middleware. This is improving as Oracle, Candle, IBM and other vendors porting their software to Linux.
  • Not strategic. Changing an OS is generally secondary to some other business activity. Most companies, for example will upgrade the Windows version on their desktop or server when they replace the hardware. The same applies to installing Linux. What necessary business process change that the company is planning will best be served by a new OS?
  • Quality/reliability. Remarkably, only 9% of the respondents mentioned this as a barrier. Linux has attained a reputation as a stable, secure OS.
  • “Other than the lack of in-house Linux skills and platform support issues, the open source community has done a great job of addressing the issues that were seen in February 2003,” says Kusnetzky.

    Give and Take

    The lack of applications and vendor support will soon be a memory as more and more vendors support the platform.

    “All major ISV’s and all hardware vendors are into the Linux game, so it has become mainstream,” says Red Hat’s Evans. “Everyone is getting on the Linux train.”

    As Linux gains in popularity, the nature of the developer community continues to change. But those changes go both ways. Just as Linux vendors are scrambling to meet the needs of potential customers, it is also driving changes in other aspects of the IT industry. One of the principles behind Linux is shifting the emphasis from the software onto the service. This affects the way that other hardware and software vendors do their jobs.

    Oracle, for example, is one such company. It now offers Linux versions throughout its product line, most notably the Oracle 9iRAC cluster database management system.

    “Linux is forcing vendors to be service providers before being product providers,” says Jay Peretz, Oracle’s vice president for partner technical services. “So we are altering our view of the market due to the influence of Linux.”