Open Source

How Linux found its home in the enterprise

Linux is uniquely suited to meet the demands of large-scale, enterprise computing. Jack Wallen traces its evolution and impact on enterprise systems.

When I first started using Linux, I was certain my platform of choice was going to take every aspect of computing by storm -- and do so fairly quickly. And with good reason. It didn't suffer from the same show-stopping flaws that plagued the Windows platform, it was cost effective, it was reliable... and it was secure.

Flash forward over a decade and Linux is still struggling to gain mainstream acceptance on the home desktop and in small businesses (though that is starting to climb). Amid all the hoopla over the desktop, something different has happened -- something many may not have expected -- Linux has become fairly widespread in the larger, enterprise-level companies. On desktops, in servers, and everything in between -- the word on the street is that Linux is fairly popular in the enterprise. How did this happen? Simple -- evolution. But it wasn't just an application on a code-base level. The evolution happened everywhere: The companies behind the distributions, the developers and designers, the CIOs and COOs of the companies -- it all combined together to create the perfect storm for Linux adoption in the enterprise. Let's break it all down into its constituent parts.

Distribution mindset

If you'll remember, Red Hat Linux was, at one point, a desktop distribution. It wasn't until Red Hat forked into Fedora and Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) that things began to change. Red Hat became a company intent on taking over the enterprise, and they focused on the most important aspects of running a business. Prior to Red Hat's brilliant move, Linux distributions were just focused on getting their platform into the hands of users. This was all fine and good if the intent was to remain a niche, geek-centric toy. But Red Hat fully understood what their distribution was capable of and now they are a billion dollar company AND the leading contributor to the Linux kernel.

That last bit is crucial. With Red Hat contributing to the kernel, it can continue to hone the kernel to meet the demands of the enterprise.

But it's not just Red Hat that is focusing the mindset of the Linux platform. Canonical has taken the desktop-centric Ubuntu and completely turned that business model on its head. With the switch to the Unity desktop, it is now possible to support every device running Ubuntu much more easily -- as the interface remains the same. Not only that, but Canonical has made sure that every aspect of Ubuntu is polished and professional. As much as many want to deny it, in the world of business, image actually matters. With the efforts of Red Hat and Canonical, the Linux image has evolved into something ready and able to take on the tasks thrown at them by enterprise needs.

But what about the software itself? How has it evolved?

Cloud computing

One of the aspects that really shows off the power of Linux is cloud computing. Most major clouds are run from Linux platforms. Two of the largest clouds on the planet are run off Linux servers:

  • Amazon EC2: Almost half a million Linux servers
  • Netflix: nearly 1,000 Linux servers run the front end which connects to hundreds of Amazon S3 servers

From inception, Linux was built for the likes of cloud computing. It's networkability, security, and reliability make it the perfect candidate and companies like Red Hat, OpenStack, RackSpace, SUSE, and Canonical have used those strengths to their advantage to develop outstanding cloud platforms.

Devices

Turns out, Linux seems to power a vast majority of the devices you use.

  • Storage appliances
  • Phones
  • Routers
  • Switches
  • Security hardware
  • Virtual appliances
  • Copiers

Somewhere along the line, manufacturers realized that Linux was the ideal platform with which to run their systems. Because Linux can be easily stripped down (thank you, modular kernel), and still function, it's a perfect marriage.

To the web

So much of business today is run from web-based services and applications. HRM, CRM, ERP, Wikis, Bug tracking, accounting -- nearly every aspect of business can be handled through the web browser. For the longest time, open source has offered every tool imaginable for these tasks -- but now those applications have solidified themselves as prime movers in the enterprise.

Some of the biggest hitters among the open source, enterprise-ready tools include:

These tools have been around for a while, but now that usage has finally caught up to the reality that web-based tools far surpass that of client-based tools, attention has finally been given to the platforms that really were at the forefront of this trend.

When I first started giving this topic some thought, my original intent was to show how Linux and open source have evolved to meet enterprise needs. But the reality shows a different perspective -- that it's the enterprise that has evolved to finally see that Linux and open source does, in fact, live up to the demands of large-scale computing.

  • High-availability
  • Clustering
  • Web-based applications
  • Security
  • Reliability

It's all been in place since the early days. Open source has always been ahead of the curve -- and finally, enterprise-level companies are seeing that. It's just a matter of time before this enlightenment trickles down to medium and small-sized businesses.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

18 comments
Sagax-
Sagax-

Linux has been competent and ready for some time now. The apps have matured and some have surpassed proprietary software. There is wide array of desktops, browsers, and media apps. There are at least two complete and competent Office Suites. While all this wide array of choice available is to us a "feature". To those who have never had choices and were accoustomed to just use what they were given it is a mind boggling, confusing, "bug".

centre21
centre21

What amazes me about this article and other articles like it is the amount of time the authors spend analyzing and theorizing concerning the adoption of Linux in the Enterprise when it's really not all that involved. 1. Linux, as part of the FSF and GPL, is a free (as in free beer) OS. The only stipulation was that you had to submit any changes to be assimilated into later versions of the OS. Who did this initially attract? Not IT Managers, but lower-level IT professionals, students and hobbyists. Here was a whole OS, with all the modern conveniences, and all you had to do to get it was download it, install it and promise to share any changes you made. Now, I'm not saying that these people liked this idea because they were cheap or trying to get something for free (there were some, but not the majority), but rather they were provided an OS that THEY COULD MODIFY HOWEVER THEY WANTED. Windows, Mac and (at the time) OS/2 had restrictions on what you could do with the OS, but not Linux. With Linux, you could change those parts that didn't work for you, or write software, from the ground up, that would integrate perfectly with the OS. It provided a sense of freedom, not just because of the license, but because you knew if you really screwed up your system, you could simply back up your files and then download and re-install the OS at no cost. You were more inclined to take risks and explore, which means people REALLY learned how to use the OS. Nothing beats hands-on in this industry, and Linux made sure EVERYONE could be hands on with this OS. 2. Now, having been provided the opportunity to really know the OS, more and more IT professionals were more comfortable demonstrating the capabilities of Linux to their superiors. And when the superiors saw the capabilities, along with the price tag, they became VERY interested. Plus, their employees had already been using the system on their own desktops, so there was already a demonstrated proficiency for the OS. After a time, small project with Linux at their center started popping up all over (trust me, I know, I was a consultant at this time), which, upon successful implementation, would graduate to larger and larger projects. 3. The only thing that was lacking (and, IMHO, is still lacking) for Linux was support. With Apple, IBM, Adobe, Oracle and Microsoft, you're not paying for the product, you're paying for someone to SUPPORT the product. But Linux had no real "support", save for user communities and blogs. But then Red Hat stepped in and filled that void, which is why Red Hat became almost the de-facto standard for Linux. 4. The last thing that really solidified Linux in the Enterprise (and the last building block in this tale) was the creation of Linux-based Enterprise apps, which were mentioned in the article. So that's really all it took for Linux to get to where it is today: offer a free, open version to everyone who will eventually be implementing and supporting it, help them convince their superiors that this product is high on ROI, support the OS and create (quality) Enterprise-level apps. What will it take for Linux to be accepted on the Desktop? It'll take someone to stop thinking of Linux as the "property" of the IT Professional (don't lie, most of you out there like the fact that the average user can't use it) and realize that until it's easy for the mainstream to use, it'll never get widespread adoption. Widespread adoption will require three things: support, more automated software installation (have you ever tried to upgrade Java on Ubuntu?) and more well-known software titles (yes, this means MS Office on Linux). Once that happens, I have no doubt that Linux will be the new de-facto OS across the board.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"It’s just a matter of time before this enlightenment trickles down to medium and small-sized businesses." I've been hearing this since I first became aware of Linux over a decade ago. 'Matters of time' can often be measured in eons, assuming trickling down is a desirable goal in the first place.

john.a.wills
john.a.wills

the poorest main-frame programming environment I have worked on? I know that most of the operating systems I have worked on have been for CISC, but I see no reason why a RISC-based OS cannot have firm line numbers in text files, with all the advantages that that gives application programmers. After all, MPE on HP 3000, as far as I know a RISC, has them. Why did HP itself go for Unix rather than improving (I don't mean extending) MPE? Why did Linus T. choose Unix as his exemplar?

narea92
narea92

You cannot ,seriousily, expect enterprises to dipend on voluntary help only. Linux to survive neeeds to transform itself in a non profit enterprise, at no cost for perspnal use. Gaetano Arena

john.tatum
john.tatum

Personnaly I feel that Linux is a "Real Operating System" as opposed to Windows. That said I don't think that Linux has been marketed well to the open public. If you remember right, OS/2 was in the same catagory however there were other issues and baggage associated with its demise as well. Bottom line is this! Marketing is everything and now is the time the Linux needs to make the move and push their agenda to the general public and give Windows a run for their money. Microsoft products can run on top of Linux using Wine so that is no longer and excuse. And with the GUI HCI that the new Linux build offer, i.e. GNOME, KDE, etc., again the timing is right to push through the speed bumps. One good marketing strategy is that Linux does not have nearly the security holes that Windows currently has. And updates can be accessed through the "yum" process which is really easy, especially now that users can setup Software Maintenance updates to happen on a regular basis through a GUI. No longer can people say that there is limited office apps available in Linux. With the advent of Open Office and or Office Lebre, this is no longer an excuse. Again, marketing needs to be pushed through to the end user by going to the media as Apple and Microsoft currently uses to market their wares. Its totally in the Linux community's ball court now.

Britisch
Britisch

Many early adopters of Linux in the enterprise had quite a scare in the early years of the last decade when the SCO Group (formerly Caldera Systems), which ironically had its own Linux distribution, claimed that every distribution of Linux contained Unix code to which it had intellectual property rights. They subsequently demanded (and in some cases received) tribute in the form of "licensing fees" from major hosting companies, retailers and others for using Linux to power their enterprises and brought suit against other megalithic companies like IBM and Novell over Linux intellectual property rights issues. During the course of that legal action, Novell indemnified Linux users and agreed to protect them from third party lawsuits. This case was disposed of only recently (2010), when a jury found that Novell owned the copyrights. The presence of these legal actions had a tremendous impact on the enterprise adoption of Linux for the bulk of the last decade and deserves mention here, at least in the form of a comment.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

No, it will require two things. One is preinstallation by hardware vendors. Users don't install or replace operating systems. They may get a friend to do it for them but they won't do it themselves, and all those friend-installed Linux installation don't equal the number of pre-installed Windows systems leaving Best Buy every hour. The other is a marketing campaign to build awareness of the product's capabilities and of the differences between it and what most of them are used to.

Dave Keays
Dave Keays

I remember setting-up a dial-up bulletin-board about 20 years ago and heard about a board that would do the job but was just on Government and some Universities. I'm glad the pioneers of the Internet didn't listen to people like you.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

provided a new service that didn't have any established competition. Linux on the desktop is up against an 800 pound gorilla with 25 years of inertia. (Talk about a mangled metaphor.) I'm not opposed to Linux on the desktop, I just don't get why some advocates consider it the holy grail. As Jack points out, there are plenty of places it is well-established in corporations. Indeed, he concentrated on the IT side and neglected the myriad uses on those companies' products. Linux -IS- a success; why obsess over one area of deployment? John Deere makes a variety of motorized vehicles that are the products of choice for a range of commercial and consumer applications; does it care that it isn't in the automobile market?

Dave Keays
Dave Keays

So I am learning skills that can be transfered to the enterprise if that happens.

Robynsveil
Robynsveil

...since GNU/Linux represents "thinking outside the box" for business users of the OS, the marketing needs to take a similar path. The most successful 'marketing' in recent times has been viral, but this might not be an option if a business sees GNU/Linux as providing a competitive edge (want to keep that secret for myself). And grass-roots marketing by enthusiastic GNU/Linux users has been given the "neck-beard" stigma: for most, GNU/Linux isn't sexy, but rather functional. Oh, it *can* look quite 'sexy' (i.e., marketable) but then, someone would need to run with that ball and actually sell it as such. If anything is preventing the "Year of GNU/Linux on the Desktop", it's probably that it isn't being "marketed". I'm doing what I can at work to promote it (successfully, I might add: I do check and uniformly people are very happy with the way their PC runs and the fact that they've saved money by not following the traditional MS/Intel upgrade cycle!) but not too many believe in the R Stallman vision of "Community" and as such, it isn't very marketable, is it?

The_Real_BSAFH
The_Real_BSAFH

@Robynsveil Dual booting is for people who can't let go of their games. We need to demand that the software vendors recognize Linux. And you do that with your wallet.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Getting the average End User to install Windows is a difficult thing too. I had a case recently where they didn't get supplied a Slipstreamed Install Disc and had to install Drivers after they installed Windows. Linux by comparison is easy. ;) Col

Robynsveil
Robynsveil

In an effort to further the FOSS/FSF cause, I "rescue" older laptop that users have considered unusable with a dual-boot Mint/Win7 solution. As you can see from the existing OS version (Win7), these aren't very old laptops at all... Core-Duos and i3s and such. What I have discovered is that once the system is up and running, the users are pretty happy with it. The issue is getting the machine to that stage: not a trivial thing for non-techies. This is the biggest obstacle to "Linux on the Desktop" for casual users: the installation. Most casual users find that once installed, the OS and installed apps serve almost all needs perfectly.

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