February 1, 2001, 12:00 AM

Born Free

Linux challenges Microsoft in the commerce-server arena, but although the software is free, hidden costs and the lack of knowledgeable programmers may limit Linux’s growth.

Over the past year, nothing has generated as much excitement in the information technology community as the Linux operating system. Designed as open-source software, the core software of Linux is distributed over the Internet free to anyone who wants it. Once Linux is installed operators can open it and revise it, enhance it, or do anything else they want, as long as their changes are freely available to others. Linux is, for all intents and purposes, the first operating system built on and for the Internet.

Many web site managers have embraced Linux. U.K.-based research firm Netcraft Inc. found that 30% of all public web sites run on Linux-based operating systems, making Linux the most popular choice for deploying public web sites.

Linux’s popularity has begun to rival that of other major operating systems. The latest research from IDC, a leading industry analyst firm headquartered in Framingham, Mass., finds that paid Linux shipments grew faster than any other server operating system over the past two years, and Linux shipments hold 24.6% of the server operating system market. IDC research also shows 40% of all spending on Linux servers is for Internet-related applications.

Is Linux ready, then, to assume the heavy lifting required by Internet retailers for their growing e-commerce sites? Here, the verdict from analysts and industry participants is less enthusiastic. While Linux will continue to gain rapid acceptance for various server and workstation applications in companies, analysts do not see widespread adoption of the open-source system for mission-critical operations anytime soon and they caution that even though Linux is free, e-commerce companies face significant costs in implementing and supporting Linux-based systems.

And of course Microsoft doesn’t think Linux has the computing or staying power. In a prepared statement, Microsoft had this to say about Linux: “Windows 2000 provides compelling value through its leading performance and reliability over Linux. The lack of integrated solution services, tools and middleware and the focus on technology over customer-driven solutions prevents Linux from being viable long term.”

Two years ago at an IT conference, an attendee asked Bill Gates what he thought of Linux. He said: “With free software, you end up with thousands of versions that are incompatible. Different applications work with different ones, different drivers work with different ones. Businesses are not in a position to test all those things and fix them. The role of that software in the commercial environment will be limited.”

Linux is based on Unix, a high-performance computing system. Linus Torvalds, a graduate student at the University of Helsinki at the time, first distributed the operating system in 1992. Torvalds originally branded his system as “Linus’ Unix,” and looked upon his venture as simply a hobby. Today, Torvalds and his associates still oversee development of final versions of the operating system’s kernel, but leave features and functions to independent developers.

Commercial vendors-including Red Hat, Angstrom, Zelerate, and IBM-have leapt on the bandwagon, and offer enhanced features and support above and beyond the core operating system. However, Linux itself is free, and can be limitlessly copied and redistributed.

Linux’s collaborative development model is one of its attractions. Thousands of independent developers regularly look at the code and create new features. “When there’s a bug that someone recognizes, it gets fixed within hours,” says Lalit Jain, president of Angstrom Microsystems, Boston.

In contrast, problems with a commercial vendor’s operating system require an IT manager to contact technical support and wait for a software patch. With Microsoft Windows NT for example, users often have to wait until the next service pack release, which can take months. Even leading software vendors, such as Sun or Microsoft, can take weeks or months to deliver patches, says Rob Ferber, chief technologist with Zelerate Inc. of San Mateo, Calif., a Linux systems provider. It’s the best that can be done under the proprietary commercial vendor model, he adds. “These vendors are good at fixing bugs-they don’t drag their feet,” he says. Nonetheless, such fixes take time.

Another advantage to Linux is that it will run on any hardware-from Intel-based PCs to servers or workstations designed for Unix. The ability to recycle older hardware is a compelling value proposition for many companies, says Al Gillen, research manager for systems software with IDC. “It is a smaller operating system and it will run with less system resources. It’s a great operating system to deploy on a piece of hardware that might otherwise be retired.”

By contrast, each release of Microsoft Windows requires simultaneous hardware upgrades. Plus, Linux usually requires only a few megabytes of disk space versus a minimum of two gigabytes for the latest Windows 2000 server.

The greatest boost for Linux in the commercial space is coming from large vendors, such as IBM Corp., Dell Computers and Intel Corp., all of which have announced support for Linux on their platforms, and are promoting it through their sales channels and resellers. Leading independent software companies, such as SAP AG, SAS Institute and Corel Corp., have also announced Linux-based solutions.

Toying with Linux

One prominent Internet retailer to adopt Linux as a platform is eToys. The site has suffered few service disruptions, a fact which Ferber, who is the former CIO of eToys, attributes to the capabilities of the platform. The Internet retailer, which sells 100,000 different children’s items from more than 750 manufacturers, had revenues of more than $151 million for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2000. The company has more than 2.4 million customers.

EToys runs its operations on a large farm of multiprocessing Pentium III processor-based and Pentium III Xeon processor-based servers running Red Hat Linux. The company actually runs a variety of operating systems, including Unix on its large database servers requiring monitoring tools, high availability, clustering and immediate failover; Linux for application and web servers; and Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 for departmental applications, such as file and print servers.

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