Thursday 2 August 2007

Linux and all that

Business India, October 13-26, 2003

The penguin has arrived

Tux, the penguin, symbol of Linux, is spreading out of the sweaty rooms of ponytails into boardrooms of pin stripes, as it promises the Nirvana of lower IT infrastructure costs while making it more secure.

Shivanand Kanavi

If one were inclined towards numerology then one could try playing around with the number 1991 in many ways, to read a turning point hidden somewhere. After all it proved to be so. That year the cold war ended with the collapse of the former Soviet Union and changed the bipolar world. It started a massive wave of economic restructuring the world over that still continues. That was also the year two seemingly innocuous initiatives were taken by technologists that are changing today’s world.

One was an information management idea at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN), Geneva, penned by Tim Berners-Lee in a proposal to his boss. His ideas led to the World Wide Web. Tim Berners-Lee refused to patent the idea and earn money from it. Today, he is evangelising the development of next generation Web technologies called the Semantic Web, as head of the W3C forum at MIT.

The other was a piece of specialised software called an Operating System (OS), written by a computer science student, Linus Torvalds, at the University of Helsinki, Finland. He posted it on the Internet with a modest comment: “Hello everybody out there, using Minix. I'm doing a free operating system. Just a hobby, won't be big and professional. This has been brewing since April, and is starting to get ready. I'll get something practical within a few months, and I'd like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions are welcome, but I won't promise I'll implement them :-) Linus”.

Torvalds was using a PC with an Intel 386 chip and did not believe that his operating system would work on anything more complex than the hard disk of his PC. Today his OS, appropriately named by him—Linux, is powering a growing number of servers, thereby causing any number of managers in technology giants like Sun and Microsoft to reach for antacids and aspirins.

Unix, Windows, and Linux
Unix has its origins in the frustrations faced by researchers in pioneering projects. The project involved developing a computer utility—way back in the early sixties—which could be shared by many users like power or water. It was called MULTICS (Multiplexed Information and Computing Service). If it sounds like the current buzzwords like ‘grid computing’ and ‘computing on the tap’, then you know exactly how ‘original’ those terms are!

The project involved MIT, Bell Labs and GEC. The project led to many pioneering concepts in software and operating systems but took too long to fructify. As a result GE which at one time had a plan to enter computing in a big way altogether exited from the field. Bell Labs too dropped out of the project while MIT chugged along for a long time.

A couple of engineers at Bell Labs, Ken Thomson and Dennis Ritchie, (who also created the programming language C), who had worked on as part of the DARPA project developed a single user operating system and called it UNIX (Uniplexed Information and Computing Service). It was also a pun on the name of the original OS.

Thus was born UNIX in 1971. However, due to strict anti-trust laws which prohibited AT&T (which then owned Bell Labs) from entering other fields than telecommunications, the company was forced to give away the source code to various universities. Thus Unix became very popular at Stanford and Berkeley. In fact Sun Microsystems was inspired by the Stanford University Network and later developed its own version of Unix called Solaris. Berkeley developed its own free version of Unix called BSD.

Novell another networking company saw the possibility of client server networks proliferating and developed its own network operating system called Netware, which is still very popular. As Microsoft saw an opportunity to grow from desktop operating systems (DOS and Windows) to a network operating system it developed Windows NT and later Windows 2000, which obviously had several features of Unix and Novell’s Netware.

Mean while Andrew Tannenbaum, a well-known tech teacher and writer wrote a small operating system to teach his students in 1987, called Minix. It was a great teaching aid. But it also had deficiencies. Tannenbaum, however refused to answer his critics and increase the complexity of his Minix. Linus Torvalds went ahead in 1991 and tried to improve Minix and called it Linux. According to Ragib Hasan, a Linux enthusiast from Bangladesh, “The nerds of the world took up Torvalds’ challenge. Of Linux today, only about 2% was written by the ‘master’ himself, though he remains the ultimate authority on what new code and innovations are incorporated into it. Because the original quantities and instructions that make up Linux have been published, any programmer can see what it is doing, how it does it and, possibly, how it could do it better. Torvalds did not invent the concept of open programming but Linux is its first success story. Indeed, it probably could not have succeeded before the Internet had linked the disparate world of computing experts”.

According to independent technology market researchers like IDC, Linux is today the fastest growing OS in servers. True it does not sound as revolutionary as the World Wide Web. But large number of people in India and other countries cannot afford to buy expensive software for home use. Governments starved of funds cannot use IT extensively for the much needed citizen services and governance. Consequently, the ‘digital divide’—a term used to denote the lack of access to computing and Internet to the masses—can turn into an unbridgeable chasm. That is why free Linux and a low cost IT infrastructure built on it seem to be the way out of the digital cul-de-sac.

Even if big businesses can afford IT costs, a rupee saved is a rupee gained and nobody can afford to be profligate. In these days of tech skepticism when CFOs of even the largest corporations in the world are asking questions on IT spending and the return on investment, any development that reduces the cost of technology sounds very attractive. That is the reason big bets are being placed on Linux, by giants like IBM, HP, Dell and Oracle. Despite its youth several users are also ready to bet on Linux.

According to a cover story in Business Week (March 3, 2003), Wall Street’s Investment Bankers—one of the most tech savvy crowd in the world—have already switched a majority of their in-house servers to Linux. Morgan Stanley for example hopes to save $100 million in the next five years by switching 4000 high-end servers to much cheaper Linux based servers.

Our own technologist-politician, President APJ Abdul Kalam, warmed the cockles of many a techie’s heart, when he said recently (see Financial Express May 29, 2003), that it is imperative for India to go for ‘open source’ software. Linux is the most well-known open source code software.

Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and a leading venture capitalist in the Silicon Valley, agrees with Kalam. “I do believe India and China should coordinate their strategies in technology and software. There are many open source technologies, all the way from operating systems to applications that will work well if the two countries work together. It will help them train their people, keep costs much lower and improve their strategic importance to the world of technology”, he adds.

Competing OS like Unix and Windows have earned their vendors tens of billions of dollars but the guy who started the Linux movement in 1991, Linus Torvalds, did not earn a cent from it. He gave it away free. Anybody could download it from the web, improve it and put up the improvements on the web for others to scrutinise and use but not sell.

Naturally, what Tim Berners-Lee and Torvalds miss in dollars is more than made up by the huge fan following they have.

When Michael Douglas in his award-winning role of a takeover tycoon, in a Hollywood movie Wall Street, said, “Capitalism is based on greed”, he was only stating the stark truth that is rarely mentioned in polite company. However, the quality of our life has changed not only by the enlightened self-interest of individuals, but even more profoundly by the ideas and deeds of visionaries and savants who give it all away.

Is ‘open source code’ such a novel thing? Did Amir Khusro claim intellectual property rights over Hindustani ragas, or Purandara Dasa on Karnatak music? In our own times, Bohr did not patent quantum theory nor Einstein relativity and E=mc2 , nor did John von Neumann his path breaking architecture of the digital computer. All of science, mathematics, classical music or philosophy is ‘Open Source Code’. They are all ‘peer reviewed’ and they inspire new developments.

If Linux is geeky flower power, a product of software ponytails, then how does it fit into the business plans of pin stripes in big companies like IBM and Oracle, HP and Dell? Linux can be downloaded from the Internet for free or bought for a very small fee from various vendors who provide it in a set of CD-ROMs along with several applications. Once you buy a copy you can install it on any number of PCs without the fear of being called a software pirate, because it is legal.

However, while Linux itself is free, applications built to be compatible with it, need not be. Thus an Oracle 9i database built on Linux is not free but Openoffice, which does everything that Microsoft Office does, is. More over one needs to spend money on Linux consultants for support, customisation, implementation etc. But considering the total cost of ownership, according to an IDC white paper, Linux still scores over other competitors by a wide margin. In Internet related services Linux scores in costs by leagues and even in other services the gap is considerable.

The need for consultants and the growth rate of Linux technologies and applications in western markets has piqued the interest of Indian IT services companies as well. Infosys is involved in acquiring Linux skills though it is too early to talk about it according to company sources. But TCS is already knee deep into Linux. According to Gautam Shroff, who heads the architecture and technology consulting practice at TCS, “We have a main frame Linux lab in Chennai with IBM mainframes, an Intel Performance Lab in Mumbai for testing Linux under stressful conditions on Intel servers. In Delhi we have a dedicated lab to provide proof of concept for end-to- end Linux solutions for enterprises. Some of our packaged banking solutions are already available on Linux. As consultants we are also helping our customers chalk out their Linux strategy, based on our experience with the Linux platform”

If the market expands due to lower cost to the end user then clearly the application software companies will be more than happy to eliminate a layer of proprietary OS vendors like Microsoft and Sun. In the case of Microsoft they might even do so with a glint in their eyes. The move is already paying dividends. For example Intel was a late entrant into the server market but inexpensive Intel servers called blade servers, are selling like hot cakes. PC assemblers like Dell who diversified into cheap servers are also showing a high rate of growth. Loading Linux on them has definitely helped. The Intel-Microsoft alliance called ‘Wintel’, dominated the PC market. But today there is a much talked about ‘Lintel’ as Linux servers being sold by Dell and IBM are showing huge growth rate. No doubt the absolute numbers are still small. For example according to a Merril Lynch report dated March, 5, 2003, the sales of Unix servers in the Sep-Dec, 2002, amounted to $5.6 billion, and those of Windows based servers accounted for $3.8 billion, while those based on Linux only amounted to a ‘paltry’ $681 million.

Then why antacids at Sun and Microsoft? Well, it is the growth rate, silly. In the last quarter of 2002, Unix server sales fell by 10% (year over year) and sales of Windows servers rose by 6%. But Linux servers clocked a scorching 38% rise!

IBM’s CEO Sam Palmisano is reputed to have asked his colleagues in December 1999 as he took over the leadership of Big Blue, on what new technologies to bet on. One clear answer from his team was Linux. As a result IBM has already spent over a billion dollars in developing the hardware, software and services for Linux platform. IBM has also built alliances with five global Linux distributors: RedHat, Caldera Systems, SuSe, Turbolinux and Connectiva. Today, it has deployed over 1500 engineers for Linux development. No wonder when Palmisano made very low profile visit to Bangalore last year, Chief Minister S M Krishna invited him to set up a Linux development centre at Hubli, in the North of Karnataka.

IBM’s conversion to Linux is all the more remarkable because IBM pushed its own proprietary operating system called AIX on its own RISC chips till recently. Today it is not shy of evangelising the open source Linux on servers with Intel chips.

Oracle’s Larry Ellison too has been very bullish on Linux. “We are already practicing what we are preaching. Oracle Corp is converting all its IT infrastructure to the Linux platform. In fact we expect the next quantum of cost savings leading to a higher profit margin of close to 40%, to come from this migration among other things” says Shekhar Dasgupta, MD, Oracle India.

“Oracle is fully committed to supporting the Linux operating system. Ours was the first commercial database available on Linux. We believe that Linux is more attractive today than it ever was, as customers are looking for cost-effective solutions. Over the past few years Oracle and its customers have learned a tremendous amount about running Oracle on Linux for enterprise class deployments. Combining this knowledge with the opportunity to drastically reduce IT infrastructure costs has provided the catalyst for Oracle to move to the next step which is to even provide front-line technical support for the Linux itself in addition to supporting the Oracle stack”, adds Dasgupta.

It is not just a matter of price, there is also increasing concern, bordering paranoia, on security and reliability. Corporations and governments cannot afford a downtime in their servers because the OS crashed nor can they tolerate a virus or a hacker attack. On that score Unix has had very high standards and consequently dominated high-end mission critical servers. Windows however has had a checkered history in this regard and hence few want to risk basing critical applications on it.

But Linux, which has Unix like features, has proved to be very robust. Says, D Seetharam, country manager, government relations, IBM, India, “Among other technical things, the very design of Linux makes it more difficult for viruses to spread. More over since the source code is open for inspection and public comment of the entire developer community, the glitches get ironed out before official release.”

Naturally, one of the biggest users of Linux in India are defence related servers. According to Javed Tapia, director Red Hat India, Linux deployment in Pakistan is ahead of India and it is growing in Sri Lanka as well. Governments elsewhere too are recommending Linux. Governments in Germany, China and Taiwan are already big users and European commission too has issued a circular regarding the same.

Many users in India seem to be waiting for the lead to be taken in western markets. However, Tapia waxes eloquent on the Linux deployment in Central Bank and IRCTC. Central Bank has used Linux in all its 619 branches in total banking automation solution while the IRCTC has deployed Oracle’s ebusiness suite to automate and streamline processes in over 30 locations across India.

“We are implementing an ERP solution on Red Hat Linux Advanced Server. Our initial reaction—Linux seems to be the answer for enterprise wide low cost computing. The final word will of course have to wait for the full roll out”, says Amitabha Pandey, group general manager IT services at IRCTC. “We are probably the first full scale ERP implementation on Linux in India”, he adds.

Seeing the direction of the wind, Sun Microsystems too is running behind the bandwagon to get a look see. It recently backed Linux in a limited way for desktop computers. A segment, which is not its forte. It has released a Linux based version of an office productivity tool called StarOffice, which is much like Microsoft’s money spinning MS Office.

RedHat’s Linux 9.0 comes prepackaged with OpenOffice and other tools, games and even a programming environment. “If you look at a comparable package from Microsoft then you will probably spend at least as much on the software as on the hardware. There by doubling the entry barrier to home personal computing”, says Shashi Unni, a RedHat training expert.

Under these circumstances, Linux should spread like wild fire in desktop PCs. But it is not so. The reason is two fold. One relates to environment and the other to the youth of technology. Small enterprises and home users in India use illegal copies of both OS and applications without any compunction. Thus if you tell them that Linux comes almost free, it makes no difference to them. It is only when they see virus attacks, frequent crashes etc that they can start seeing the advantage of using Linux. Secondly Windows has been the most successful the desktop. Hence manufacturers of hardware peripherals like modem cards, web cameras, scanners, printers etc. have invetsed in writing software called ‘drivers’ based on Windows so that the machine automatically recognises the new peripheral. Most of these hardware manufacturers are yet to provide Linux compatible drivers to users. So one can find after loading the latest version of Linux that the internal modem card is not recognised by the OS. A major irritant as Internet access is one the main functions of a PC.

External modems however have no problem with Linux. “But this problem cannot be wished away”, admits Tapia of RedHat. “Till hardware vendors start providing Linux compatible drivers, which is not too far away, we have an alternative strategy. We are working with PC vendors and providing Linux certified hardware list to them so that one can just load Linux and plug and play”, he adds.

Already major PC vendors in India are offering Linux loaded PCs at a price, which is almost 30% less than Windows loaded ones. After all who would not like to have an IBM PC or an Acer Laptop, which comes with all warranties and legal software but competes with the neighbourhood assembler’s price?

The low cost and technical robustness along with the opportunity to modify and develop it further, has made Linux highly popular among India’s tech power houses like IITs, BARC and TIFR. In the US too four leading scientific laboratories: National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois (NCSA), San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the University of California, Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago; California Institute of Technology in Pasadena are building a very high powered grid of supercomputers powered by Linux.

If we want an IT enabled nation then clearly Linux offers the best bet at the moment. Already Linux distributors and consultants like RedHat are working on Indian language support in Linux making it even more attractive.
We say Amen to that.

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