While the future of computing in Asia Pacific may revolve around Linux, it isn't quite there yet, even though there is little doubt that the open source operating system is here to stay.
According to IDC, Linux is the fastest growing operating system in the server marketplace worldwide, with a forecast compound annual growth rate on shipments at more than 28 per cent, from 1.3 million last year to 4.7 million in 2004. Likewise, Linux revenue will be the fastest growing of the systems in the market, rising more than 23 per cent to slightly more than $US85 million by 2004 - when total Linux server shipments will be second only to Microsoft's Windows line.
While IDC does not expect the region to explode with open source code (at least not within the next 12 months), it remains upbeat about the operating _system's growth. "Linux will grow because there is good acceptance of the operating system in the Internet world," says Avneesh Saxena, associate director, systems and servers research, at IDC.
In fact, "it is the best operating system for the Internet economy largely because it is itself a product of the Internet," says Jeffrey Goh, chief technology officer of Lightspeed Technologies, a thin server company using Linux.
"One-third of the world's Internet servers are using Linux," adds Roland Stranneborn, manager of IBM's Singapore marketing planning and operations, system sales. "In Singapore, 70 per cent of Web servers are running on Linux today."
IBM's take on the growth of Linux is that it is part of the Internet e-business phenomenon. "If you look at the technologies that have made the Internet happen - TCP/IP, HTTP, HTML, XML - they are all open technologies," says Stranneborn. "No-one owns them. We think that Linux will be the next frontier to standardise the operating system services. It is not just about operating systems; it is a trend in the e-business revolution. It is going to be the next big thing in e-business and will be to applications what the Internet is to networking."
With Gartner estimating that by 2004, e-business will be worth in excess of $US2 trillion, IBM is clearly putting its money where its mouth is, and is investing heavily in Linux.
In addition to its decision to spend $US200 million on seven Linux development centres throughout Asia Pacific over the next four years, the company will also put in place a dedicated Linux sales and marketing team for the region.
Targeting the SME market
"They will push Linux solutions to independent software vendors [ISVs] and end-users," says Stranneborn. "They must also transfer skills to our business partners and customer support teams to help them understand Linux better."
Compaq is also knuckling down on its Linux strategy and has plans next year to bundle Linux with its Intel servers. "We are going to target the small and medium enterprise market (SME), and will work to pre-load various distributions of Linux depending on the country," says Daniel Lee, director, industry standard servers group, enterprise business, at Compaq Computer Asia-Pacific.
The SME segment is expected to be particularly lucrative as the absence of licensing fees accompanying Linux makes it appealing.
The recent research from IDC also shows about 48 per cent of all Linux server-based installations are located in small companies - and there were 1.3 million new server installations in 1999 by companies with 100 employees or less.
"It is a cost benefit to SMEs that are networking their environments more and more due to the pressures of the new economy," says Saxena. "Linux will gain penetration with users offering Internet services and those implementing e-business solutions."
Helping to spur that growth is the popularity of Apache, an open source Web server that is commonly coupled with the Linux operating system to provide an inexpensive way for companies to create a Web site.
"The servers with Apache are excellently executed," says John Dunkle, president of Workgroup Strategic Systems. "They don't stop; they have a very light footprint".
Still, Saxena believes that Linux's usage will initially be focused on lightweight non-mission-critical applications - a position with which IBM disagrees.
"I don't want to say Linux is not _mission-critical," says Stranneborn. "If you're a big company and you set up a firewall, your firewall is mission-critical; Linux can do that. You don't need a high-end system, and it is very robust and reliable."
However, he concedes that Linux has its weaknesses: "There are things that Linux doesn't have at the high-end, such as scalability."
According to Goh Eng Lim, chief technology officer of SGI, this is because vendors spend money to develop proprietary Unix operating systems, and hence control the direction and features incorporated, whether scalability or robustness. "Linux, however, is open source and has no such guarantees," says Lim. "You can't tell anyone that the next release of Linux must be delivered now, or next quarter. It will be released when it is good and ready."
Although supportive of the Linux operating system, SGI still continues to develop its own version of Unix _to ensure customers have the relevant certainties they need.
Still, IDC's Saxena expects issues like reliability, availability of applications, support and interoperability to be overcome in 2001 - especially since IT professionals are rushing to learn more about the operating system. IDC suggests the market for training _professionals on the open source operating system could rise to $US311 _million by 2004 (the market in _1999 was worth $US10.9 million).
In the US, Linux is already going beyond serving Web pages and heading into the high-end. Observers say it is _now being tailored to fill many _enterprise needs and considered as _a one-size-fits-all operating system _capable of handling multiple enterprise applications.
At the National Centre for Macromolecular Imaging at US-based Baylor College of Medicine, scientists are reconstructing molecular configurations of viruses and developing 3-D models of their structures. Instead of using traditional supercomputers that can cost millions of dollars, Baylor is employing high-end Linux-based server clusters that are much less expensive, yet just as effective.
The College selected Linux as the operating system of choice because of its scalability and price/performance advantages. The 3D images yielded by the 32-processor cluster allow researchers to view viruses like pieces in a puzzle. By studying these pieces, scientists hope to be able to take them apart and destroy them, says physicist Steve Ludtke.
"The generic hardware is so much cheaper," he says. "But we use Linux because it has other advantages - it's a multi-user operating system and most scientific software is designed to run on Unix."
IBM recently announced it will be spending $US1 billion on Linux this year and that all its eServers will run on Linux. IDG's Deni Connor caught up with Sheila Harnett, technical head of IBM's Linux Technology Centre to find out what the future of Linux for IBM is, and if the platform is finally seen to be hardy enough for enterprise environments.
Why is IBM so interested in Linux?
Customers have been asking us for a couple of years how they can deploy [Linux] in existing environments. In many cases, they have existing IBM hardware that they want Linux to run on. That warrants some of our involvement in working with Linux on the Intel platform and the RS/6000.
Also, each architecture in the eServer line has different things Linux can bring to it. The mainframe-based zSeries has a unique proposition when you bring Linux to it that is different than Linux on Intel or the PowerPC.
We wanted to bring Linux onto it in the first place so environments where there are a bunch of Unix servers and zSeries machines could cooperate [on tasks]. The mainframe would run OS/390 applications; the Unix boxes would run Unix loads. Formerly, a customer would administer each environment separately.
One advantage of adding Linux to those platforms is centralisation of the administration of those diverse application loads on the same box or saving time adding customers to the network. By running your Linux loads on a system alongside your native loads, you can also benefit from some of the optimisations Linux makes in having the I/O transfer more quickly inside the box as opposed to across the network.
What needs to happen to Linux to make it a solid platform for enterprise networks?
Linux can be improved in handling even larger symmetric multiprocessing configurations. The 2.4 kernel supports four to eight processors. Some of IBM's and other vendors' Unix [versions] handle up to 32 processors.
IBM is also working on high availability and clustering. Linux is very good at clustering, but needs work in the high-availability area. We are also focusing on the serviceability aspects of Linux - we are working on technologies that make Linux a better platform to debug.
Other areas are the journaled file system and logical volume management, which are two areas where Linux has been historically lacking. With the 2.4 kernel, there is the beginning of a logical volume manager that is a _significant improvement. That is an area where IBM has some activity underway to be able to enhance that technology in the future.
Why is a hardy file system important for Linux?
A journaled file system is associated more with high availability of a system. When a system crashes and does a file system check on a Unix [server], it is looking for places that need to be rectified on the file system from when the system crashed. The problem is that large server deployments, in which there are gigabytes and possibly terabytes of disk space, need to wait for the system to go through every byte on every disk. A journaling file system helps keep track of file system reads and writes and logs them, so if the system does fail it knows where it left off. That's something that all enterprise operating systems have to do.
There are four open source development efforts trying to bring that capability to Linux. One is IBM's journaled file system. There is also Reiser FS, Stephen Tweedy's ext3 and SGI's XFS. All four of these groups are working together to go forward to recommend a single set. To the extent that they vary, a customer can choose which [file system] they use.