For Tech's Sake: Creating tools makes Linux more appealing

Gary Arlen

"The back-end advantage that people don't understand about Linux is that it changes the way applications are being developed and the way that organizations are structured," says IBM's Sam Docknevich about the growing attention to Linux, which his company is aggressively pushing.

He enthusiastically continues that, "Linux is very portable. In federal and other sectors, [that's] a business advantage. With Linux, and this is one of the real benefits, you get a standard platform," adds Docknevich, Linux national practice leader at IBM Global Services.

Beyond ? or despite ? the predictable hype, the Linux assault is indeed taking on new momentum. Government users are primary targets for the suppliers who have a stake in this operating system that has been bubbling up for a decade.

Linux advocates ? a growing breed, with the obvious absence of a certain Redmond, Washington, operating system supplier ? are touting the constant introduction of tools that support IT developments on the Linux platform. Recent cover stories about Linux ranging from Business Week to the Wall Street Journal are drumming up even more attention.

Most significantly, since the beginning of the year, operational tools have been introduced that enable customer development of applications ? and that appears to be a key tipping point.

"Now you can manage a Linux infrastructure end-to-end with the same tools," Docknevich points out. He cites Tivoli tools that "are now fully enabled with the same level of security" that they had on non-Linux boxes, plus network and system management tools "from BMC and others" that work across multiple Linux-based devices.

These developments create a better total cost of ownership (TCO). In a cost-constrained government IT environment, such efficiencies take on even greater appeal.

Last month's pronouncement that the Open Source Development Labs will require a Developers Certificate of Origin for new contributions to the Linux operating system kernel adds a vital ingredient to the evolving world of Linux (http://www.osdl.org). It comes just weeks after Red Hat's new enterprise version of Linux was certified to meet Evaluation Assurance Level 2 (EAL2), an internationally recognized approval process often required for government usage.

RedHat, a major Linux distributor which recruited Oracle to help achieve its certification, expects that its Security-Enhanced Linux OS will be ready by early next year; SELinux, part of a project initiated by the National Security Agency, uses "mandatory access controls" that add barriers to break-ins.

Meanwhile, IBM, which is backing both RedHat and rival Novell's SuSE Linux agenda (which received its EAL3 approval earlier this year), continues to push its aggressive Linux efforts into dozens of agencies in the U.S. and around the world.

The current Forbes Magazine feature story about IBM's Linux assault opens with an anecdote about a Big Blue 12-person team that has been working for eight months to overhaul the Munich city government's entire computer operation onto Linux ? at no charge.

IBM, Oracle and other dominant vendors see Linux as their new leverage into government computing ? especially now that concerns about the security of an open source solution are being nullified.

Moreover, as Open Source issues are resolved ? including patent and rights lawsuits ? government IT managers, like their commercial counterparts, are overcoming their Linux FUD factors (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) that have restrained their embrace of the open source system.

Docknevich perceives that in just the past few months prospective government customers' have largely dropped their concerns about legal barriers to Linux.

"Now it has achieved credibility as an operating system, as a platform that is certified for this sector," Docknevich says.

IBM lists more than 200 of its government customers worldwide using Linux for some of their operations. It cites government customers who have adopted Linux for applications ranging from document management, land registry, tax and treasury services to emergency management, weather forecasting, aviation safety and public service command and control.

Exactly where in federal, state and local agencies these Linux services are being deployed remains a big question. Neither IBM nor other vendors and integrators are identifying their Linux deployments.

The cloudy customer base is akin to findings from this month's Forrester Research report, which discovered that of 140 large corporate users surveyed, 53 percent run mission-critical applications on Linux, with a comparable ratio using Linux for newly developed applications. Again, no specific customers were identified.

Nonetheless, Linux overall is believed to account for about 7 percent to 15 percent of the installed base of operating systems (estimates vary widely from different sources).

Although government and private sector customers may be keeping quiet about exactly where they are using Linux, it is clear that the once-renegade operating system is quickly moving beyond its original bastion of servers and Internet-based technology.

IBM's Docknevich points out that Linux has "moved from edge of the network" and is increasingly "running critical services" in government applications.

To be sure, the open source movement has faced a mixed greeting in government circles. Bruce Lehman, former U.S. Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks in the Clinton administration and now chairman of the International Intellectual Property Institute (www.IIPI.org), acknowledges that there has been "a big problem" about open source options.

It has left "a lot of people confused" about what to do, Lehman told me via phone from an IIPI conference in Hawaii early this month. He said that with big vendors such as IBM and Sun "getting behind" the open source movement, Linux may find better opportunities than it previously had in the government sector.

"My sense is that it's a question of looking at what is your particular utility at the moment," Lehman said. "For certain applications, they [government users] will look at alternatives, but there's no big move to abandon Windows."

And that's what makes the current Linux frenzy ? and the efforts to create tools and security screens ? an even more vital process in these contentious days.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications Inc., a Bethesda, Md., research firm. His e-mail address is GaryArlen@columnist.com

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