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Enterprises crave stability for Linux in 2004

Administrators and experts have had enough with SCO and lawsuits. They want to see Linux take real steps toward mission-critical functionality in mainstream enterprises.

It's hard to imagine a year with more twists and turns than 2003 held for the Linux and open source communities.

Like the enterprise-ready 2.6 kernel, it's stability that big business craves, and some experts and users contacted by think they're going to get it in 2004.

With the SCO Group's legal case cruising toward an expected 2005 court date, enterprise administrators and industry analysts believe that next year may be the year Linux goes mission-critical in mainstream enterprises.

"Right now it's happening, but with the risk takers like financial services," said Bill Claybrook, research director for Linux, open source and grid computing for Aberdeen Group, a Boston-based analysis firm. "I think Linux is finally going to expand to the Gillette and Staples kind of enterprises that go at a slower pace with their technology, not just to the leading-edge companies."

Not only is Linux taking direct aim at Unix's server business, but eight-way Linux boxes are going to start nudging mainframes out the data center door, said Claybrook, who acknowledged IBM's success using Linux on the mainframe.

The 2.6 kernel, long promoted as the kernel to take Linux to the mainstream, was released Dec. 17. The new kernel scales up to 32 processors in production environments, and subsequent updates may take it up to 64. Kernel author Linus Torvalds and maintainer Andrew Morton say 2.6's scalability comes from a new CPU scheduler, improved memory management and file systems, and support for 8 gigabits of memory on 32-way systems.

Also, 2.6 includes a native Posix thread library and enhancements to I/O device performance and management. Other new features in 2.6 include logical volume management, sysfs, device mapper technology and reduced lock contention.

But for all that promise, enterprise users are unlikely to see Linux's benefits until distributors like Red Hat Inc. and a combined Novell-SuSE release 2.6-based server offerings. Red Hat, which released its latest enterprise-grade server software in October, said its next release isn't likely to appear for 12 to 18 months.

"The 2.6 kernel is nice but won't do much for us. We need it to be certified by Oracle for us to really consider it," said Jorge Borbolla, CIO for auto wholesale firm AutoTradeCenter Inc. "It's still too fresh for our production environment."

Novell's proposed acquisition of SuSE Linux AG, announced in November and expected to close in January, has rejuvenated interest in Novell. Novell has made a huge commitment to Linux -- it also acquired Ximian in 2003 -- and how this commitment manifests itself will be a huge story in 2004.

"SuSE makes a big difference for [Novell]," Claybrook said. "They have money and paying customers. It will be interesting to see how the open source community accepts NetWare [Novell's network server operating system] products, as they move to Linux, and whether their products are adopted by users. They have to be if Novell is going to make money off of Linux. It's 50-50 if it will."

Still, Novell has piqued the interest of enterprise users.

"If [Novell] plays its cards right, there might be a very compelling story developing there, not only on the OS level, but also on the Linux applications that they could facilitate," Borbolla said. "Think GroupWise for Linux. SuSE, Ximian plus the Novell installed base transitioning to Linux sounds interesting to me -- certainly worth watching."

Red Hat, the leading Linux distributor, renewed its commitment to enterprise Linux during the fall of 2003, when it ended free support for Red Hat Linux and announced its hobbyist version of Linux, called Fedora. However, since the day SuSE announced it expects to be acquired by Novell, speculation has been that Red Hat was next up to be bought -- and that IBM or Hewlett-Packard Co. could be suitors.

As for SCO Group, the Lindon, Utah-based Unix vendor attacked everything from IBM to the General Public License to Linus Torvalds, in a wild year that arguably made SCO the biggest IT newsmaker of '03.

But does that story have steam, or is it running out of gas, the way some believe SCO's legal case is?

"I think the SCO saga will be an interesting soap opera to watch, but [it] will not impact Linux in the big picture," Borbolla said. "Years from now, it won't even register as a blip."

Claybrook said, "I can't see anything dramatic for 2004, unless somebody acquires Red Hat or the SCO case is settled."


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