Linux in Manufacturing: Building Linux up

by Cynthia Flash

Kaiser Aluminum uses Linux on the factory floor. Will other manufacturing firms follow suit?

"I've found Windows 2000 to be as, or more reliable than Linux. "
Jeff Fenley stared at his computer in amazement early this year, grateful that he didn't need to restart it. After all, he'd gotten into the habit of rebooting the Windows 98 machine two to three times a day. Then, Fenley installed Windows 2000 on his desktop and the daily crashes stopped. The change meant a lot fewer headaches for Fenley. It also meant Linux had been eliminated at his company.

Fenley, president and CEO of financial services Web site www.goinvest.com, of Santa Monica, Calif., moved his company from a combination Linux- and Windows NT-based platform to one that solely relies on Windows earlier this year. And Fenley couldn't be happier.

While Linux is rapidly gaining acceptance in corporate America and more and more companies are implementing the open source system by the day, Linux still loses out on many occasions and faces a number of hurdles in gaining widespread acceptance.

An April Programmer's Paradise poll of more than 600 professional developers indicated that 40% of respondents were planning to develop on the Linux platform this year. While that bodes well for the growing success of Linux, the survey also indicated that 53% of developers said their companies were planning to implement Windows 2000 within the next six months. Linux still faces an uphill battle competing against an entrenched Microsoft. While most companies who evaluate Linux say they like the system, the availability of application software is still a major concern for potential Linux users.

Deciding against Linux

Boeing, Goinvest.com, and LATimes.com are three companies that have evaluated or used Linux over the last few years but decided to go with another solution. Goinvest.com started using Red Hat Linux about 14 months ago for its Web servers. The company chose Linux at the time because of the low-cost and the performance, said Fenley. "Processor for processor you'll get better performance with Linux than Windows NT," he said. While the Linux system worked well in and of itself, the problems were in software compatibility. Goinvest.com needed to add an NT server to run "E-share Net Agent," a customer service application that wouldn't run on Linux, he said.

That meant Goinvest.com was splitting its IT resources between two different systems--and the company only had three IT people to start with. "That's what turned us on to Windows 2000," said Fenley. Goinvest.com decided to participate in Microsoft's Rapid Deployment program in which the Web site received incentives to be an early adopter of Windows DNA, Microsoft's Windows 2000-based Web solution. In December 1999 and January 2000, Goinvest.com deployed Windows 2000 on its 22 servers and 50 desktops, replacing Windows 98 on the desktop machines.

Moving to one standardized system across all platforms was a huge benefit. "With a mixed environment, it was difficult to scale. We need to be able to do that quickly and affordably with increased loads," said Fenley. "With NT and Linux you have two different IT people with two different ideas," he said. With Windows 2000 as the standard platform, Goinvest.com was able to eliminate one of its three IT positions, saving money.

Linux also lost out at Goinvest.com through no fault of its own. The desktops that had run Windows 95 and 98 were continually locking up and crashing, which meant the IT department would often spend half a day or more trying to fix one computer. With Windows 2000, those problems are gone. "I've found Windows 2000 to be as or more reliable than Linux. I don't think we've had one involuntary restart on a server this year," Fenley said.

Application software a big concern

The Boeing Corp. in Seattle conducted a formal six-month evaluation of Linux in 1999 and concluded that the system was not ready for full-scale deployment at the large aviation company. Lack of third-party software was a concern as were problems with scalability throughout the company, said Bev Clark, communications manager for the company's IT unit. "We have one of the biggest computing environments in the world," said Clark. "One of our long-term IT goals is to standardize. Because of scalability, Linux wouldn't take the place of everything so we would be adding another system if we implemented Linux," she said.

She added that Linux shows promise. "It appears to be reliable and has the potential to reduce computing costs because it can be used on low-cost hardware," she said. As a result, the Information Systems Process Council at Boeing allows Linux to be used in certain situations for niche applications, like Web serving, she said. But anyone who wants to run Linux must receive permission from the Council. One of the conditions under which it can be used is the users must support it themselves.

LATimes.com also considered Linux when it prepared to launch the Web site in late 1995 and early 1996. The company ran Linux and Windows 95 concurrently on its desktops for six months to evaluate which system could better handle the content development needs of the Web site, explained Manuel Caldera, network coordinator for LATimes.com. While the Linux system was powerful, the standard Web design software like Adobe Photoshop that LATimes.com needed to design the site did not run on Linux at the time, said Caldera. The Web site's staff has since migrated to Windows NT on about two-thirds of its desktops because the system is more powerful and stable than Windows 95 or 98, he said.

But Caldera said he still likes to keep a watchful eye on Linux, and in early June he installed it on a desktop to test its Web development capabilities. "Linux has evolved so quickly and more applications are written for it," he said, which is why he wants to see if it can now support the needed applications.

Significant progress has been made over the last few years in the availability of software for Linux, said Ed Taylor, president and CEO of Collective Technologies in Austin, Texas, a system management services company that architects Linux, NT, and Unix solutions for companies. Despite the progress, Linux still faces a chicken-and-egg situation with regards to availability of applications. "Software companies are reticent to port to a new system unless there is a substantial user base," he said.

Still, he expects Linux deployment will continue to progress in earnest. Taylor said 70% of his customer base uses Linux in some fashion. The majority of those customers don't use Linux enterprisewide, though. They use it for specific purposes like firewalls or Web servers. Linux doesn't scale well across an entire environment because of the lack of desktop applications, he said. But Taylor does expect Linux to continue to be successful as a back-end server system. "I believe Linux ultimately serves the role of enterprise backbone and will be run at the back-end server level. Its real strength lies in its ability to be a cost effective, non-stop server environment," he said.

Daisy Whitney is a freelance writer based in Denver. Her work has appeared in the Denver Post, Electronic Media and other publications.

This article was originally published on Thursday Aug 10th 2000
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