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LinuxWorld: It's All About Customers

NEW YORK -- In 2003, distributions and the kernel no longer take center stage at the LinuxWorld Expo New York. These days, as Linux continues to gain traction in the enterprise, the show is more about how vendors can help customers leverage the platform to streamline infrastructure requirements and lower total cost of ownership.

Perhaps nothing illustrates that point better than the show's upper-tier sponsors. Red Hat was the sole distribution vendor to take a "platinum" level sponsorship (and while Red Hat introduced v8.0 of its Linux distribution in September, it's the Advanced Server enterprise platform, not its distribution, that helped bring the company to profitability). The show's "cornerstone" sponsor was Hewlett-Packard , with AMD , IBM , Intel , Sun Microsystems , and Veritas rounding out the "platinum" sponsorships. The only other distribution on the marquee was UnitedLinux, with a "silver" sponsorship.

That was more or less the case last year as well, a sign of how the tide has changed since IBM made ripples with its $1 billion bet on Linux in 2001. But while last year's show was mostly about companies showing off their new products to corporate decision-makers interested in testing the Linux waters, 2003 had more to do with vendors showing off the results of actual engagements.

"The economic rationale behind using Linux at the server level makes sense," Deutsche Bank Securities analysts Brian Skiba and Christopher Chun said Friday. "The hardware running the operating system is dramatically cheaper based on the Intel architecture, and the plethora of enterprise applications running on UNIX are now capable of running on Linux. So rather than spend $200,000 on a UNIX solution, the customer is likely to spend $25,000-$50,000 for a Linux solution. It's not the free operating system that saves the money, it is the shift to commoditized hardware. And the appeal is that many of the UNIX enterprise applications that are tried and tested and running today can be brought over to the Linux box. And large hardware vendors like IBM, HP, Dell and others are in the game in a big way. And above that "free" layer of operating system software will be "add-on" pieces that customers will pay for -- like 8-way clustering capability or high security. Companies such as HP will be more than happy to sell these add-on enterprise parts and make incremental money. And there are a host of support services, maintenance contracts, and other "soft" items that can be sold to the account."

Commodity-based computing is the key to the model. By commoditizing the hardware and operating system, the big players have lowered the barriers for customers while shifting the playing field to applications and services.

Dell CIO Randy Mott illustrated the point more concretely during his keynote speech at the show Thursday. Mott explained that Dell reorganized its internal infrastructure -- which was running on 14 different proprietary systems mostly based on Sun Solaris -- to Linux boxes running Red Hat and Oracle9i. By reducing duplication of common systems (a result of Dell's hypergrowth mode of previous years), Mott said Dell was able to realize cost savings of 41 percent thanks to Linux.

"UNIX is dead," Mott read from one of his slides.

Mott also noted that the savings resulting from the migration to Linux allowed it pump up its research and development budget -- despite overall shrinking of IT budgets -- by diverting 55 percent of its IT spending to that line item.

IBM, in turn, used the show to trot out more than a few of its Linux customers, including new wins like Unilever and the PGA Tour.

Unilever -- whose brands include Dove, Ragu, Lipton tea, Ben & Jerry's, Snuggle, Lawry's and Hellmann's mayonnaise -- is a convert to Linux's message of lower TCO, and plans to fully adopt Linux across its infrastructure with an eye to eventual transition to a grid computing environment founded on that Linux infrastructure within eight to 10 years. Initially, like most new Linux converts, the company is deploying the platform at the edge of its network to run its firewalls, domain name servers and Web servers. It then plans to utilize the platform for its system management servers and hopes that it will eventually evolve into a global enterprise operating environment and support environment that will allow it the flexibility to buy hardware and software from a multitude of vendors to fit its needs.

The PGA Tour, meanwhile, is relying on IBM's Virtual Linux Services to provide on-demand computing capacity for its new TOURCast service. TOURCast will allow golf fans to follow tournaments in real time or replay through rich graphic statistical presentations. IBM's Virtual Linux Services will allow the PGA Tour to buy only the capacity it needs, when it needs it.

Still, while customer case studies were front and center at this year's LinuxWorld, there were new technologies to be found.

As evidence of Linux's increasing drive into embedded systems, embedded Linux specialist MontaVista Software used the show as an opportunity to unveil MontaVista Linux Carrier Grade Edition 3.0, a Linux operating system and development environment geared to the needs of telecommunications equipment manufacturers. Customers like Force, Intel, Motorola, IBM and RadiSys have already announced support for CGE 3.0, which they will utilize to build products like wireless to wireline communication gateways for Rail systems, switches for mobile infrastructure, location registers and base station controllers for GSM operators, Internet security products like VPN and secure routers, media gateways and Softswitch-Voice over IP network solutions, media gateway controllers and managed infrastructure equipment like DSLAMs and routers.

While UnitedLinux unveiled a version of its UnitedLinux 1.0 distribution with support for the OSDL Carrier Grade Linux 1.1 specification last week, that offering is in the form of a service pack addition to its distribution. Meanwhile, MontaVista's Linux CGE 3.0 was built from the ground up as a carrier-grade platform, according to Glenn Seiler, director of product marketing for MontaVista Software.

"We have worked very closely with these ISVs to validate and certify that their solutions work with our carrier grade edition," Seiler said.

He added, "CGE is available today and delivers a true, OSDL-compliant carrier-grade product. Unlike distributions that just provide patches to a generic server product, MontaVista Linux Carrier Grade Edition 3.0 was designed and comprehensively tested, from the ground up, to address telecom availability needs and OSDL feature requirements. MontaVista has made significant contributions to Open Source in the area of high availability including the OpenIPMI project and our CompactPCI Hot Swap subsystem. CGE also includes technologies that are only available from MontaVista, such as online debugging and patching of deployed applications."

CGE expands MontaVista's embedded portfolio, which also includes its Consumer Electronics Edition 3.0, introduced earlier this month at the 2003 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

AMD and partner Metrowerks, a Motorola company, also took a turn in the embedded Linux space, using the show as a vehicle to demo a pre-release version of OpenPDA, a Linux technology-based software platform for developing PDAs, Web pads and smart phones running on the AMD Alchemy Solutions Mobile Client Reference Design Kit (RDK).

The software platform consists of an embedded Linux kernel, Trolltech's Qtopia multi-language user interface, Insignia's integrated Java Virtual Machine (JVM), and a full-featured Opera Web browser. It also includes extended capabilities that will allow devices to utilize desktop synchronization utilities and mobile networking.

One of the more anticipated debuts was JBoss' delivery of its JBoss 3.0 application server, which may give BEA Systems a run for its money. JBoss, a J2EE-friendly app server with a very attractive price point (it's free), is surging in popularity, with more than 2 million downloads in 2002. webMethods partnered with the JBoss group late last year in order to add the app server to its integration platform.

Cluster computing solutions also showed they were gaining ground at the show. Dell Wednesday announced it has added high-performance computing cluster (HPCC) capabilities to its PowerEdge 1655MC blade servers -- the company's first blades that support the Linux environment. Dell, which only uses the Red Hat Linux distribution on its hardware, said its HPCC program offers configurations of 6 to 132 server-nodes, with up to 84 servers in a standard rack. However, Dell remains a late-comer to the game, with both Sun Microsystems and Platform Computing unveiling Linux-bas ed clusters at the LinuxWorld Expo San Francisco last summer.

AMD is also working with Scyld Computing to develop a 64-bit version of Scyld Beowulf, the cluster operating system, for systems based on its Opteron processors. The companies plan to support both 32-bit and 64-bit application development and simplified migration of existing 32-bit applications.