Introduce Linux to the enterprise with the right non-mission-critical application

In the past, CIOs who understood the benefits of Linux faced an uphill battle convincing other executives brought up on Microsoft. Linux is now finding a home in the enterprise, though. Try these steps before suggesting a changeover.

With its connection to IBM, Linux has been making significant inroads into the enterprise. While there are still questions about its support infrastructure and other deployment issues, the feeling among CIOs is that Linux can be counted on in large-scale deployments, especially in applications that demand extremely fast number crunching. However, Linux proponents at the CIO level must be politically savvy (and technically skilled) when introducing Linux into the enterprise. The reality is that Linux—and other open-source approaches—operate under a microscope. The executives looking through the microscope in many cases will be non-technical CEOs or CFOs who are skeptical about trusting vital applications to the open source model.

If open source advocates are not prepared, that skepticism could become a problem. CIOs should remember that CFOs and CEOs don't care about operating systems, nor do they have an emotional investment in the open source model. They care about reliability and cost. "The thing about evangelists is that they often get martyred and burned at the stake," said one high-level IT executive who wished to remain anonymous. Let's take a look at where Linux stands today and at the measures you can take to implement it if you feel your organization could benefit.

Progress being made
Linux proponents are becoming less dogmatic in their approach to large-scale deployments as the technology and the business case around it become more intertwined, said Andrew Binstock, principal for Pacific Data Works LLC, a consultancy. "I would have to say it is very clear in that regard that the Linux community is maturing," he said. "There is truly less fervor than you used to hear. Now they are much more proponents than evangelists."

Much has changed, Binstock said, because of IBM’s involvement with Linux. The benefits of Big Blue’s vote of confidence are two-fold: It means that there is more support available and, perhaps more importantly, acceptance by the corporate giant helps shed the image of Linux as the work of computer nerds laboring in a garage. "The best thing to happen for Linux is IBM’s strong embrace of it," he said. "IBM provides tremendous validation." Today, he said, crucial or mission-critical elements running on Linux include databases from IBM and Oracle; application servers from Sun, IBM, Oracle, and BEA; enterprise management software from Computer Associates, IBM, and BMC Software; and software development platforms from Borland.

Challenges remain for mission-critical apps
Though it is gaining steam, acceptance of Linux for mission-critical apps is still in its infancy. Experts say that there are some basic steps CIOs should take to accelerate this process and optimize the success of Linux in the enterprise. First, understand that Linux is still the underdog. "No CIO ever got fired for buying IBM or Windows," said Bill Claybrook, research director for open source software for the Aberdeen Group. "You have to prepare people for it and be very careful."

IT executives hoping to integrate Linux into mission-critical apps are counseled to introduce it first in non-mission-critical scenarios. This accomplishes a couple of key goals. It gets the organization comfortable with the new operating system, and it enables the enterprise to develop the in-house Linux expertise that will be vital once mission-critical applications are introduced.

Another shrewd step is to carefully select the mission-critical applications for which Linux will initially be used. It is no mystery why Linux has found many of its initial successes in financial institutions: These companies run computation-intensive applications that require great speed. This, experts say, plays to the operating system's strength. "Start with an application that is contained and [completely] controlled," said Evan Bauer, consultant and principal research fellow with the Robert Frances Group.

Try a pilot program first
Claybrook suggests a pilot program before any large-scale switchover. However, any move should be significant. "The danger is if you do something trivial people will say, 'So what?'" Bauer said. "You have to do something meaningful." Experts also suggest that the Linux enthusiast keep in mind that the biggest issue today is the economy. If Linux is to make the move into mission-critical applications, it is a good idea to feature it in an application where a cost savings is clearly identifiable. "The enterprise customers we are talking to say it really is about cost right now," said Michael Katz, president of Rae Internet, a maker of Linux-based security software. "That's the number-one criterion."

A related suggestion is that applications chosen encourage creation of an infrastructure that can be built on an ongoing basis. "Have a reason for doing it [implementing Linux] that looks at both the benefits for the first application and the benefits of adding the platforms" for future applications, Bauer said.

Linux still has a way to go before it matches its progenitor, UNIX. "I think at this point, for mission-critical apps, Linux is still at the cutting edge," Binstock said. "If it is truly mission-critical, people will be justifiably cautious."