the truth. Had you even heard of the Linux operating system two
years ago? Now Linux—a small and efficient operating system known in
programming circles for its resilience to crashes—has its own
conference (LinuxWorld), is available on computers from Dell, and is
being supported by IBM, Compaq, and other companies. Lotus even
announced that it’s going to port Domino to it. But is this would-be
competitor to Windows ready for use in the enterprise?
Two or three yeas ago, only hackers and MIS renegades used Linux.
Until recently, very few applications ran on Linux, which is harder
to install than Windows NT. But for low-level Web or e-mail servers
that don’t require much in the way of user interface, Linux is far
more reliable than commercial operating systems like NT. So much so
that on many corporate servers it’s already been snuck in as a
replacement for NT. Linux is free (as we’ll explain in a moment), so
administrators pulling the switch on NT didn’t have to tell their
managers what they were doing. They could even complete the ruse by
installing Samba, which emulates an NT server so well that most
people can’t tell the difference.
Linux has only an infintesimal share of the operating system
market. According to International Data Corporation, the Framingham,
Mass., market research company, Linux installs accounted for only
2.5 percent of the 80 million operating systems sold worldwide in
1998. However, that percentage doesn’t look so small when it’s
translated into a quantity: 2 million. Still, Linux has a long way
to go before it ceases being an exotic flower of an operating
Companies have resisted accepting Linux officially into their
organization in part because there haven’t been established channels
for technical support, and in part because there’s been a dearth of
viable applications. But now that many computer companies are
supporting Linux, these problems are diminishing and businesses can
seriously consider giving Linux their official stamp of approval.
Besides being reliable and inexpensive, Linux runs well on almost
any piece of hardware. It’s a good candidate for Web, print, and
file servers, and soon Domino and other enterprise applications will
run on it. Here’s a look at the benefits.
Linux Is Open
Who’s Porting What to
Here’s is a list of major software vendors who have
ported applications to Linux or have announced plans to do so.
Look for more enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors, such
as SAP and Peoplesoft, to port their
Product or Plans
Applix offers a suite of office productivity
applications for Linux, including Applix Words, Spreadsheets,
Graphics, Presents, HTML Author, and Applix
CA has announced that it will develop versions of its
Unicenter TNG enterprise management application for Red Hat
versions of Linux.
Corel has said that it will port WordPerfect 8 and the
rest of its office productivity applications to Linux. Linux
will be the OS for the its new network computer product,
Execmail has ported its Execmail Message Server and
LDAP/X.500 Enterprise Directory Server to
At LinuxWorld, HP demo’d a Linux version of OpenMail
6.0 to gauge reaction and get feedback. HP is close to
announcing a new Linux messaging and collaboration product
based on OpenMail technology. And it has said that it will
port its Web JetAdmin peripheral management platform to
IBM will port DB/2, WebSphere Application Server, and
eNetwork Host On-Demand to Linux.
Lotus has announced that Domino R5 for Linux will be
in beta by the end of the year. The company plans to
eventually port the entire Domino line.
Netscape has announced preview releases of Netscape
Directory Server and Netscape Messaging Server for Linux.
Netscape also announced the availability of Netscape Delegated
Administrator software for Linux, and has formed an internal
organization named Mozilla.org to focus on open source
In September, Oracle announced Oracle8 support for
Linux and expects Oracle8i for Linux to be available in early
May. Oracle will also offer Linux versions of its ERP
software, WebDB, and of Oracle Developer.
Sendmail has always supported the open source ideal so
it’s no surprise that its e-mail routing software supports
All three of these companies have announced
forthcoming Linux ports for their DBMS products.
Linux was the brainchild of Linus Torvalds, a Swedish student who
wrote the original kernel as a hobby back in 1991 (by the way, his
Swedish pronounciation of the term, "lynn-ucks," is catching on as
the standard). Torvalds’ original intent was to develop an
alternative to minix, a miniature Unix clone that universities use
to teach operating system principles to budding software engineers.
He corresponded about his project with other students, made his code
public, and by the end of the first year had a small following of
hackers contributing to the effort.
As open source software, the entire operating system down to the
source code is available free on the Web. This doesn’t mean people
can’t charge for Linux. Companies can modify the source code (for
example, to fix bugs or implement a new feature), put their software
on a disk, and sell it. Or they can bundle Linux with another
product (as Dell is doing), and sell the whole package. They can
also sell applications developed or ported to Linux. But the source
code itself is free.
More Reliable Code
Why, you might ask, would Torvalds make the potentially lucrative
fruits of his labor available for free? Unlike most people in the
computer indusry, he wasn’t trying to make money. Rather, he was
trying to make a good operating system. Because Linux source code is
available to everyone, software engineers and hackers all over the
planet can fix bugs or improve it. As a result, Torvalds hoped that
the Linux would develop faster and become more reliable than any
commercial operating system.
When engineers can get their hands on the source code, they can
usually write more reliable applications. By seeing exactly how
application calls to the operating system are handled, they can
figure out the best way to integrate their software with the
operating system, thus minimizing crashes. With proprietary systems
like NT, engineers must instead rely on documentation to understand
the source, which in the case of Windows is often hopelessly out of
date and omits important details.
Moreover, bugs in an open source operating system can be fixed
more quickly than in a commercial operating system, resulting in
more reliable code. This is because developers who find a bug in
Linux can fix it themselves—if they don’t, someone else most likely
will. With thousands of engineers and hackers around the globe
working on Linux source code, bugs are usually fixed within hours of
their discovery. By contrast, when you find a bug in NT, you report
it to Microsoft, whose engineers may not be able to respond
promptly. Bugs pile up, and servers eventually go down.
Finally, because anybody can tailor the source code, no company
can control Linux to its own advantage. For example, they can’t
exclude support for Java or another industry standard.
Runs on More Hardware Platforms Than NT
Any system administrator will tell you that they’d love to use a
single operating system in their organization. For this to be the
case, the operating system must be able to run on a lot of different
chips. Linux has such processor support down cold. It can run on
anything NT can—386, 486, and Pentium processors, as well as Digital
Alpha. Plus you can use it on Motorola systems, Sun SPARC, MIPS,
ARM, and the PowerPC.
Linux works reasonably well on low-end machines. We heard of one
company that was going to retire 20 of its old 486s but instead
loaded them with Linux and used the Beowulf clustering utility to
create one of the fastest processers in the world. Even if this
story isn’t true, such a system would be quite powerful—and it would
consist solely of a free operating system and fully depreciated
When it comes to installing and administering Linux, there’s good
and bad news, depending on your technical skills and pain threshold.
Linux is smaller and less complicated than NT, so for experts it can
be a lot easier to manage. However, it can be harder to
install—unless you know exactly what you’re doing. You’ll probably
have to edit some system files, and fewer drivers are available.
You’ll also have to make more settings to tell it what hardware
components you have (a happy side effect being that you can
configure Linux exactly for a particular machine, resulting in
better performance, which is why low-end computers run so well on
Fortunately, several distribution vendors, including Red Hat
(www.redhat.com) in Research Triangle Park, N.C., and Caldera
(www.calderasystems.com) in Provo, Utah, have stepped in to make
installation easier. For a modest fee, they’ll sell you a specially
tweaked version of Linux that’s tailored to install smoothly on your
An unresolved downside of Linux is that it doesn’t support the
multiprocessor capability of high-end computers. But this will
probably be addressed as Linux matures.
Channels of Tech Support
Linux in Brief
Latest stable version of
Supported hardware platforms
386/486/Pentium, Digital Alpha, Motorola 680x0, Sun
SPARC, PowerPC, MIPs, and ARM. Development for additional
platform support is ongoing
Most common users
ISPs, educational organizations, small to mid-sized
Most common applications
Web servers, e-mail servers, print and file
Estimated number of users
12 million worldwide, up from 7.5 million in 1997 (NT
probably has 10-20 times more users than
Free, good multiplatform support, fast performance,
source code is available for tighter application integration,
doesn’t crash much
Hard to install, has fewer official tech support
channels than commercial OS’s, application support is minimal,
A lack of technical support is one of the biggest reasons many
companies haven’t adopted Linux. Sure, you can always get bug fixes
and help from Internet bulletin boards. But MIS managers don’t like
to rely on technologies that don’t have official channels of
support. NT servers might go down more often, but at least you can
call Microsoft for help.
Now, however, vendors like Red Hat and Caldera have added
technical support to their offerings. Other service houses are also
popping up, such as Linuxcare (www.linuxcare.com), a San
Francisco-based outfit that offers around-the-clock support for all
major versions of Linux and provides consulting and training for
businesses and developers. But most important is the recent
acceptance of Linux by several big name PC vendors. In response to
demands primarily from ISPs and small to mid-size businesses,
industry giants IBM, SGI, Sun, HP, Dell, and Compaq have all made
arrangements to support Linux on their hardware. By the end of the
first LinuxWorld in March, which drew more than 12,000 people to the
San Jose Convention Center in California, most hardware vendors had
announced some form of support for Linux.
So far, Dell is the only PC vendor offering computers with Linux
already installed. Other companies ship their hardware without an
operating system but tested to be "Linux-ready." Linux is then
installed by resellers. PC vendors are also partnering with third
parties to provide customers with support after they make a
purchase. IBM, for example, has partnered with all four major Linux
distributors—Red Hat, Caldera, and Pacific Hi Tech (www.pht.com) in
Oakland, Calif., and SuSE (www. suse.com) in Furth, Germany—to
provide technical support for Linux-powered Netfinity and RS/6000
servers. For the first time, businesses can get preapproved hardware
and support from a single source—a must for many companies. With
that kind of backing, decision-makers can begin to feel comfortable
using Linux in their organization.
Lotus and Others Promise Applications for Linux
Officially sanctioned technical support may get Linux into the
enterprise, but without software support, Linux will be relegated to
Web, file, print, and e-mail servers. Currently, only 1,000 to 2,000
applications have been ported to Linux, which is a paltry sum
compared to the 35,000 applications available for NT. But things
seem to be looking up, as several major software vendors have
announced their intentions to port enterprise applications to Linux.
For example, in January Lotus announced that it planned to have a
Linux version of Domino R5 in beta by year’s end (for more
information, see the special report on Lotusphere99 on page 18 of
the March/April issue). A commercial release should follow early in
2000. Assuming that Lotus gives Domino for Linux the same level of
development it’s devoted to other versions of Domino, Linux converts
should get a fully equipped and functional Domino environment.
They’ll also enjoy the advantages we’ve already discussed—better
performance and reliability, and the ability to run on a greater
variety of hardware and low-end machines.
According to Don Harbison, a product marketing manager at Lotus,
the company expects early adopters of Domino for Linux to be ISPs,
defense and aerospace companies, outfits with tight budgets, and
other technically adept firms that won’t be put off by complicated
installations. Lotus also plans to encourage application development
so it can position Domino for Linux as a low-cost Web-integration
platform. If all goes well, Lotus will eventually port the entire
Domino product line, as well as the Notes client, to Linux.
IBM has also announced upcoming versions of Linux applications.
For starters, it’s porting DB/2, WebSphere Application Server (a Web
development tool), and eNetwork Host On-Demand, which provides Web
browser access to databases and server-side applications. Other
application vendors promising Linux applications include Corel,
Oracle, Netscape, Informix, and Sybase.
Some Linux users might also benefit from a product called the
WINdows Emulator, nicknamed WINE, which lets your PC run Windows
programs on top of other operating systems (although you can’t use
standard Windows drivers). But because emulators restrict
performance, this won’t be a great solution for most enterprises.
When transactions are routinely carried out in the millions, even a
millisecond’s delay can create problems.
Ready for Prime Time
Linux might not be ready for the desktop just yet, but enough
enterprise applications are available, or will soon become
available, to enable corporations to reap the benefits of Linux on
the server side. So if you’re planning to upgrade your operating
system, or if you’re tired of your Web server crashing, this little
operating system from Sweden might be just what you want for your
JOHN McCORMICK is a software industry analyst for Frost &
Sullivan, a worldwide market research and consulting company. He’s
based at the company’s Mountain View, Calif., office.
CASABONA is a Group Computing senior