Originally Published: Monday, 3 July 2000 Author: Phil Hughes
Published to: columnists/Phil Hughes Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Is Linux the VAR's Dream?

As soon as computing started to get commercialized, Value Added Resellers (VARs) appeared, helping to integrate computers into traditionally computer-free environments. My standard example is a dentist's office. The dentist doesn't care about software, operating or computers; he only cares about getting patients scheduled and billed.

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As soon as computing started to get commercialized, Value Added Resellers (VARs) appeared, helping to integrate computers into traditionally computer-free environments. My standard example is a dentist's office. The dentist doesn't care about software, operating or computers; he only cares about getting patients scheduled and billed.

Back in the old days, meaning the 60s and 70s, operating systems were simply necessary evils to make it possible to sell hardware. You could get source code for the OS because, after all, what would someone do with an OS that ran only on a $5,000,000 piece of hardware that you could buy only from one source? Even in the 80s, getting at least a linkable version of the kernel and source for the device drivers wasn't uncommon. I remember getting this in 1983 when I was starting SSC and we bought a Codata 3300 system.

Then along came Microsoft and, on the UNIX side, SCO. Computers were relatively inexpensive and the OS was made by a different company than the hardware. In order for these independent OS software companies to pay the bills, they needed to sell their OS. Thus, the inside of an OS became a big secret in order to keep the money flowing.

Is NT the Problem?

Time for some real-world input. There is no VAR involved here because this is a big internal project in a big company but the same theory applies to the work VARs do.

Nordstrom is a big retail chain. They have about 200 stores. Their "rack" stores are comparatively small but their regular stores can be a multi-story building covering a city block. A rack can have 6-10 POS terminals with regular stores having in the hundreds. We are talking thousands of Point of Sale devices. This information comes from "a reliable source" who used to work there and was actually let go as part of their "upgrade."

Internally, the main business software runs on an IBM mainframe. The point of sale system is based on Nixdorf (now Siemens) systems consisting of POS terminals and servers. Enter Microsoft. Their solution was to replace the Siemens servers with NT servers that would talk to the existing POS terminals.

To make a long disaster into a short story, it doesn't work right. Nordstrom doesn't have the source code for NT so they can only discuss, harass and wait for a new release. First they must prove to Microsoft that it is a Microsoft bug then they have to wait for and pay for a bug fix.

At this point they are trying to figure out if they can just keep the old systems in place because, while obsolete, they do work. Unfortunately, they have let most of their staff go who knew how to maintain them.

Is Linux the Solution?

Whether you are Nordstrom or a small VAR catering to dentists, the answer is yes. Whether you had to talk to an old POS terminal or add a new feature that counted the number of times the dentist used the drill on a patient, Linux and the Open Source community address the problem. You have the code. You can fix an existing device driver, write a new one or even hire someone to do it for you.

Other benefits include an OS cost of $0/server and, if our experience at Linux Journal is any indication, a much more reliable solution. What do I mean by reliable? Just looking around, www.linuxjournal.com has been up for 102 days (rebooted because of a kernel bug in an upgrade we attempted), www.a42.com has been up for 153 days (rebooted because the power supply fan failed) and the Linux system at our Senior Editor's house has been up for 287 days--rebooted because his 3-year old son thought it was fun to push the power switch.

Phil Hughes has a BA in Mathematics from California State University at Long Beach and has completed graduate work in Computer Science through University of California at Irvine and the Joint Center for Graduate Study in Richland, Washington. He has over 20 years experience working with Unix as a systems programmer, software designer, writer, teacher and consultant. He is currently President of SSC and Publisher of Linux Journal.





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