Originally Published: Friday, 10 September 1999 Author: Ken D'Ambrosio
Published to: corp_features/General Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

The Meteoric Rise of Linux

Ken D'Ambrosio takes a look at the growth of Linux in business. "It took longer than the popularity-via-marketing paradigm, but Linux has gained its popularity through its technical stability and superiority." Is your IT department next?

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During last spring's Linux Expo, Linux was frequently said to be "coming out of the closet" in terms of business use. Well, now it's going into the closet -- the server closet. Linux has gotten enough momentum, enough press, and enough accolades that it is quickly becoming an important part of many companies' IT strategies, and is viewed as a legitimate server platform on which to run applications spanning the full spectrum, from intranet web servers to e-commerce sites.

If you've been keeping track of Linux's meteoric rise, and know that it's eight years old, a question might occur to you: what took so long? This is a valid question, but doesn't really address the situation. Most operating systems are released among a flurry of press releases, advertising, front-page trade journal articles ("To Upgrade to WonderOS or Not: We Take a Look"), etc. -- all things perpetuated by slick marketing departments, and frequently bereft of any real, useful information. Linux is an oddity here. It started out as a purely public innovation, was shaped and expanded by hundreds, then thousands of dedicated programmers, but known only to those who love to cut their teeth on the latest and greatest. Gradually, under Linus Torvalds' purview, it gained features, and options, but never at the expense of good, solid code. Slowly, through some sort of grass-roots peristalsis, it gained access into corporations -- a print server tucked under a desk here, a CIFS/Mac file repository there.

And then someone flipped a switch: critical mass had been attained.

Linux, with no marketing department, not even a company in the traditional sense, started getting massive attention. Software ports from Oracle, IBM, Computer Associates, and the like started to flow in; front-page articles were now the norm. And, with some reflection, it's obvious that this is the better way for things to have transpired. It took longer than the popularity-via-marketing paradigm, but Linux has gained its popularity through its technical stability and superiority. By the time it was in the limelight, it had already undergone its growing pains, and was solidly into the 2.0 kernel revs. When looked at from a different perspective, Linux is the only prime-time OS, ever, that isn't marketing driven. Instead, just like eight years ago, Linux is still technology driven, with Linus overseeing its development. This direction has been further validated by thousands of Linux programmers and millions of users the world over, and the very successful Red Hat IPO.

So what does this mean for the average IT department? One way to address this question is to look at what it means for other companies. A quick glance at www.linuxbusiness.com, and some of their links, will point out that many major companies, as well as smaller companies with smaller IT budgets, are now using Linux. Examples are numerous and varied:

  • Allen Robel, a software engineer for a Fortune 500 networking firm, used several Linux boxes with high-speed ethernet cards to generate massive amounts of network traffic, allowing him to test ethernet switch functionality. "It was invaluable in my testing," John stated, pointing out that his outlay was the cost of three PCs, combined with twelve 100 Mbit ethernet cards ($20/each), as compared to a high-end dedicated traffic generation box, at $1,000/port. Since these weren't dedicated boxes, they were also able to add further functionality as servers for various network services, as well as the ability to execute Perl test scripts. NT, the least expensive alternative, would have been substantially more costly as each machine would have required an at least a Windows NT Workstation license.

  • At NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, sysadmin John Pettey uses Linux to offer low-cost network services such as DHCP to his Windows client base. Linux is capable of offering a full complement of network services for Microsoft users, including WINS resolution, CIFS file and printer sharing via Samba (http://us1.samba.org/samba/samba.html), as well as more traditional services such as HTTP. All, as John is glad to point out, for free.

It's clear from the above, as well as others, that Linux has arrived as both a practical, and logical, choice for a server platform. Nevertheless, this still wouldn't do a smaller IT shop any good if it didn't already have a Linux-savvy, or at least Unix-savvy, staff. Fortunately, this issue is being addressed in a two-prong manner.

Firstly, for reasons outside of the scope of this article, Linux is rapidly becoming the operating system of choice for college-age computer science students. This huge influx of talent is just now hitting the job market, and the one seemingly universal constant among them is a desire to work with Linux -- and not the more restrictive, more expensive, hobbled world of Windows.

Secondly, for those who wish to learn for themselves, Linux has on-line resources comparable to anything you'll find on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. Specifically, the Linux Documentation Project (LDP) is going strong with guides for everyone. Selections range from the absolute beginner's guide, Installation and Getting Started, up to the guide for expert coders, The Linux Kernel. See http://metalab.unc.edu/LDP for more details.

All told, Linux's expansion to date has been remarkable. It seems likely, however, that its future will be even more dramatic. Don't let yourself, or your IT department, get left out of the rush.

Comments? Email the author of this piece.

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