Has Linux Finally Arrived?

By Adam Stone | Posted May 04, 2004

Anecdotal evidence suggests that a growing number of small and mid-sized businesses are adopting the Linux operating system, whose symbol is the penguin, the flightless Antarctic fowl. Many companies opt for Linux over competing systems from Microsoft and Unix, citing its reliability and low cost.

One group that's driving forward with Linux is the PGA Tour, a mid-sized enterprise that organizes 120 golf tournaments a year. In the first quarter of 2000, Steve Evans, vice-president of information systems, replaced a piece of his Windows NT operation with a Linux system. Pleased with its reliability, Evans now uses Linux as the backbone of his mail system, and he's phasing it into other aspects of the IT operation.

"Even when we had issues with applications, the operating system stayed intact. In the past, we'd have to reboot the entire system," Evans says. "We're all challenged to do more with less, and knowing that we can restart an application without restarting the entire operating system is a huge savings in terms of unnecessary down time."

The Applications Issue

Still, not everyone is ready to sing the penguin's praises just yet. "In general, small business will be the last place where Linux takes hold in a major way," predicts Peter Kasner, a senior analyst at the Aberdeen Group research house. "While Linux appliances such as firewalls make good sense now, the key missing ingredient is applications." At this time, he suggests, there aren't enough Linux-based applications aimed specifically at the needs of small and mid-sized enterprises.

Some vendors are looking to change that. For instance, IBM has introduced an NT-to-Linux-Migration service intended to help business users wean themselves from Microsoft and transition to a Linux environment. In addition, IBM has introduced Linux-based support services such as Linux Virtual Services that can scale a server's capacity up or down in order to accommodate fluctuating traffic. That's a big deal for Evans. Since golf is typically played only four days a week, traffic on his Web site can rise or fall significantly from one day to the next.

Scalability is one of the great virtues of Linux, says Mike Riegel, director of marketing and strategy at IBM. "Every small business wants to be a big business," he says, and the Linux solution "has been designed from the beginning to scale more effectively" than other operating systems.

The Support Issue

Another point of contention in the adoption of Linux has to do with the availability of qualified IT talent. Small businesses typically work with a thin IT crew, and the prospect of making a major tech transition is enough to scare off many entrepreneurs. Linux "requires more training than other operating systems, which have done a good job of developing point-and-click system management tools over the last five years," says Kasner. "Linux is for technicians, period, and small-business people want to process an order, not deal with grep utilities."

IBM takes issue. "One of the first things we advise customers to do is to go look under the covers of their IT shop," says Reigel. So many tech people have been using the operating system, albeit below the corporate radar, that "you will probably find more Linux skills than you knew about," Riegel says..

In Evans' experience, the personnel situation has been challenging, though far from excruciating. "No matter what operating system you are running, we ask that you be not only trained but also certified," he explains. With that in mind, he found his team needed a little ramping-up. "Most of the people here have the MS certification, so we put them through the training courses to get them Linux certified." This took time and money, Evans says, but the savings in terms of reliability under the Linux system have been well worth the expense.

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