February 1, 2001, 12:00 AM

Born Free

(Page 2 of 3)

This diverse architecture “gives eToys the flexibility to deploy just the right amount of computing power wherever it’s needed,” says John Hnanicek, senior vice president and CIO of eToys. “We can match different Intel processors at different price/performance points to different business applications, without over paying anywhere. We can then redeploy servers within the organization to distribute our processing power appropriately while preserving our server investment.”

Myhome.com, a home building supplies e-retailer, supports more than 20,000 SKUs on a single dual-processor Intel server running Linux. This includes a 6,000-page web site that can regenerate within 20 seconds, says Ferber, who helped develop the site.

Many mix-and-match approaches are possible. For example, a large site could consist of a server farm of Pentium processor-based servers running Linux to support web applications, linked into Unix-based database servers and Microsoft Windows NT/2000 servers for departmental applications. “You have a larger number of smaller systems, and you can afford online spares to build redundancy into those system,” Ferber observes. “You can have one machine backing up nine others. Your cost point is much lower than buying another Sun 10000.”

Flexibility and the preservation of choice are part of the appeal of open source software, says Ferber, currently chief technologist with Zelerate Inc. of San Mateo, Calif., a leading Linux systems provider. “Linux is not a single path; it’s got a bunch of minor forks to it. As the world changes, you’ve got a large family of solutions to re-evaluate. If you constrain people to using only one platform or one particular set of tools, you only get a certain set of problems solved. If they can deploy in a wide range of environments, people will tackle more situations, and gain more insights into new business processes.”

This flexibility extends to systems as well as processes. For example, IBM supports Linux running as a logical partition within its zSeries mainframes. A logical partition sets aside part of a computer’s memory to support a separate system, and runs separate from the rest of the computer. IBM plans to provide the same support soon to its iSeries 400 midrange servers. In addition, Linux runs on any Intel-based server or workstation, opening the possibility that it could grow along the same lines as Microsoft Windows. The widespread availability of Intel-based servers, a commodity of hardware that fueled the PC revolution, is now fueling the proliferation of Linux-based servers.

Rearranging deckchairs

Some online retailers find this cross-hardware capability appealing. A travel services site, Deckchair.com launched by former rock star Bob Geldof, ran a trial evaluation copy of IBM’s DB2 Universal Database for Linux, running on IBM’s pSeries servers, which usually run Windows NT/2000 and are powered by Intel microprocessors. IBM says Deckchair.com was the first e-commerce web site to be powered by IBM’s DB2 for Linux.

“Because Linux is an open source software solution, it has enabled Deckchair.com to run on any hardware configuration,” says James Page, cofounder of Deckchair.com.

Beyond running web servers, Linux’s raw potential at this point lies in specialized servers. In fact, analysts point out that Linux is still in the experimental or pilot stages at most organizations. In most cases, Linux gets deployed as a limited-function server, such as a firewall or e-mail server, says IDC’s Gillen.

One such specialized function that one Internet retailer has discovered, for example, is storage management. EMusic.com, an e-commerce music company based in Redwood City, Calif. that specializes in the distribution of MP3 audio files over the web, recently contracted with San Francisco-based BigStorage Inc. to deploy 10TB of its storage services on a Linux-based disk subsystem.

BigStorage claims the installation is the largest successful Linux storage network to date, and sets a precedent for Linux’s ability to power high-volume storage in enterprise environments. Since they deal with such a high volume of audio files, EMusic needed high-capacity storage that could sustain the demands of constant file transfer and be configured to meet archiving requirements. BigStorage also implemented a backup software solution to create a comprehensive storage system that would integrate with EMusic’s existing network. Such technology “really proves the potential of open systems technology for high-end storage,” says Neil Overmon, manager of server operations for EMusic.

While there have been many promising deployments of Linux-based sites within the Internet retailing sector, analysts agree that it will take some time before vendors supporting the open-source system capture a significant slice of the IT and e-commerce market. Plus, many of the same infrastructure and support issues associated with more proprietary systems hamper large-scale Linux rollouts.

In fact, despite its rapid growth and acceptance, it will be a long time before the Linux movement dents the coin purse in the multi-billion-dollar IT and e-commerce market. “There is effectively no revenue associated with Linux,” says IDC’s Gillen. “Before the morning coffee break, Microsoft makes more money than all the Linux vendors do on operating systems sales.” He adds that Linux server operating environment revenues will barely exceed $85 million in 2004, compared with Microsoft’s projected intake of more than $20 billion for operating systems. To date, Linux probably has not had an impact on Microsoft’s financials, mainly because Linux has been deployed to new systems or web sites, rather than replacing any Windows NT systems.

Hidden costs

Cost-particularly hidden deployment and maintenance costs-may be another hurdle to widespread Linux adoption. In terms of licensing, Linux provides significant savings. A fully configured Microsoft Windows NT web server installation may run about $4,500 in licenses, compared with a $50 Red Hat license. However, as with lunches, there is no such thing as a free operating system. Most costs associated with computing stem from the services that need to be wrapped around a deployment, says Ganesh C. Prasad, senior information specialist in the Internet Development Services group of EDS Australia, and a contributor to the Linux.org web site. “No organization will install software without a support agreement in place,” he points out. “Hype notwithstanding, Linux will never be a zero-cost solution.”

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