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Springtime Brings New Community Events

  • May 10, 2004
  • By Dee-Ann LeBlanc

The next packed talk I attended was given by Chuck Gray, a Senior Linux Strategist with IBM. He promised us that his talk wouldn't be an IBM sales pitch, and instead focused on what he's finding their business customers are doing with Linux. In particular, what business is doing with Linux, and why.

The why, at times, was pretty interesting. For example, it's easy to forget that businesses currently have a wide range of hardware types, these large heterogeneous networks where they have to have specialized administrators taking care of many different operating systems. One advantage for these businesses moving to Linux is that they can take the same operating system, all built from the same code base, and deploy it on all of the different architectures they already have.

Aside from the few architecture-specific issues, their administrators can then focus on a single operating system and set of applications, immensely simplifying system management. Considering that, according to Gray, forty percent of TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) is systems management, this practice can result in huge savings.

Speaking of systems management, there were some other sobering statistics. For example, around ninety-seven percent of damaged machines are caused by disgruntled employees, whether physical damage or break-ins, pitting system administrators and their managers against other system administrators and the rest of a company's staff. In addition, around the same percentage of damage done by viruses is done after patches that plug the vulnerabilities exploited are available.

This second fact might make it sound like most system administrators are just lazy, but another statistic has around seventy-five percent of all white collar workers on the job sixty-seven hours a week! On top of this, the same percentage aren't taking their full allotted vacation time, and when they do take vacation they're bringing their laptops to check in with work.

As Gray puts it, "we're killing our operations people." With the continued corporate mantra being to drive costs down further, it's not likely that staff increases are coming, so IT needs another solution available to help keep on top of the game without drowning. Gray and IBM are pointing to "autonomous computing" as the solution.

Autonomous computing is the use of a certain level of artificial intelligence in order to make decisions based on IT and business policies, and then act on those decisions, so for example such a setup might automatically apply the latest system security patches--and this particular bit of functionality is already available today for most Linux distributions.

He also explained why companies such as IBM and HP are looking so seriously at Linux and perhaps (this is my intuitive leap, not a statement of his), looking more seriously at it than their own versions of Unix, is that the average proprietary operating system vendor spends around one hundred million dollars in research and development.

Paying staff members to help with the Linux kernel and surrounding applications can cost only a fraction of this total investment, and yet it is estimated that the total costs if a company had developed Linux on its own would today have reached two billion dollars. So focusing on Linux gives such vendors access to a two billion dollar operating system for the cost of much less staffers' time. IBM has six hundred engineers who are bonused for the open source contributions they make that are accepted by the community, and runs four thousand Linux servers internally.

One can only assume that the excitement among the IBMers that speak at the various conferences over Linux is genuine.

Of course, the open source community often benefits from the corporate participation as well, especially those segments whose needs intersect with those of the enterprise. While the server has ruled as far as enterprise movements to Linux so far, today more and more companies are looking into the desktop.

Echoing Nat Friedman's sentiments from Real World Linux, Gray pointed out that many companies fear that desktop Linux can't quite meet their needs and that currently Linux on the desktop has to be evaluated on a case by case basis.

For an administrative assistant who heavily macros and otherwise creates immensely complex documents in Microsoft Office, and both needs these features to work for older documents and doesn't want to have to learn how to use them in a new package, it's probably not yet time to move over. However, for many more general situations--and many more specialized ones, such as bank teller workstations--Linux on the desktop is more than ready. Gray points out, though, that these same administrative assistants can't move from Microsoft Office 97 to Office XP without great deals of pain either.

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