Using Linux to Tame the Big Hairy Beast

by Chuck Toporek

This morning's keynote presentation was titled "Fueling the Open Source Alternative," but I found that title to be a little vague. To me, the focus of the discussion was more on how large companies are using Linux as a solution to their distinct business needs.

In reality, the keynote, lead by Michael Tiemann from Red Hat Software, was more of a panel presentation/discussion. I'll admit it, normally, I'm not too enthused by keynote presentations. But I found this one intriguing because it showed how Linux and Open Source are moving more into mainstream business as a solution, rather than as something that businesses are just wanting to try out.

The idea for the keynote came about because Dale Dougherty and Tim O'Reilly heard that Michael Tiemann was going around to meet with the CIOs and CTOs of various companies to try and learn about how and why they were using open source software to build unique systems for their needs. What he learned was that they weren't as concerned with cost savings as they were with trying to provide the right solution to the problems they encountered on a daily basis with their businesses.

Three of the people that Michael met with gave short presentations on how they're using Linux and Open Source in their businesses. First up was Ed Leonard, head of technology for DreamWorks Animation .

Linux @ DreamWorks Animation

What's new is how they're using things like Perl and GCC as the key foundation for feature film production. These tools were on the periphery of what they were doing in producing films. After all, they're a niche market; an innovation market. They try to embrace as much technology as possible to make great films.

Shrek, which was produced at PDI/DreamWorks, really pushed the limits of computer animation. The technologies they used were SGI Octane and O2 systems on the desktop, and Visual Effects Society where they discussed the use of Linux in creating visual effects. The Summits addressed the needs and concerns of the VE industry. At the second Summit, there was an amazing transformation, with people wanting to work better together and sharing their Linux strategies; according to Ed, it was a very dynamic and open exchange.

Linux-based rendering farms are on the rise, and in a survey at the VES Summit, nearly three-quarters of the animation companies had plans to integrate Linux and open source software into their business by 2002. Because of the way the film industry works, moving to open source software is of great interest to technology managers. Some of the challenges they discussed and discovered at the VES Summit included:

Linux @ Morgan, Stanley, Dean-Witter

Next up was Phil Moore from Morgan, Stanley, Dean-Witter. Part of his responsibility there was building up their AFS filesystem.

The "big hairy challenges" they face in the enterprise industry can be summed up as the three C's:

Providing a more traditional look and feel is what a lot of companies are looking for when they're trying to find a technology solution. In the enterprise, the main challenge they had to overcome was the support issue. The 800 number makes people feel good, even though it doesn't really work. The other support issue was the ability to get changes and fixes from vendors for software products.

Provide the traditional interface that medium- to small-sized companies are used to seeing. They want to know that there's someone there to help and support them.

Instead of trying to provide critical support internally, Phil felt it was better to team up with people to offer critical solutions, such as kernel extensions, etc., so small companies don't have to ramp up and hire kernel experts. It's better for small companies if they can go to someone and say, "we need this," contract for it, and then be able to get that solution.

Linux @ BMC Software

And finally, came Carl Coken of BMC Software. About 20 years ago when the company started, BMC Software had three products, and now they have nearly 700 programs and 7,000 employees worldwide. About 70-90% of their time is spent in supporting people. They have a mix of systems in-house, and for their sales force, so the challenge is to be able to provide support for their staff and customers.

One of the reasons why they've migrated to Linux and open source is that they needed to move to a more cost-effective model, so moving away from proprietary systems made sense for their business needs. For example, they're running out of floor space in their computer rooms, so when they look at infrastructure costs, things like the cost of power to run all of the machines can be tremendous. One solution was to shrink the number of racks of boxes down from 27 to 1, resulting in a great savings in operating and support costs.

Like MSDW, if BMC Software needs support, their solution is to go to another vendor, such as Red Hat, or to contract outside developers to help them solve and support the technology problems they encounter.

Now on to the panel discussion. Some of the points raised were:

And that concludes my report from this morning's keynote presentation. For me, it was really interesting to hear how Linux and open source/free software are making their way into mainstream business practices. Having the source available is critical, as emphasized by Ed Leonard from PDI/DreamWorks and their "expansion" of the GIMP, or how they and BMC Software were able to reduce their operating costs by standardizing on Linux as the operating system for server and rendering farms.

One thing that really wasn't addressed in the keynote or in any of the follow-up questions from the audience was how these companies are "giving back" to the open source/free software community. Yes, they're using Linux and other GNU tools, such as the GIMP, and hiring developers to maintain these systems, but it would be really great to have the improvements PDI/DreamWorks made to the GIMP for 16-bit graphics contributed back to the project.

So maybe the beast has been tamed, but I think it's getting a little hungry.

Chuck Toporek is a Mac technology geek and a senior acquisitions editor with Addison-Wesley, a division of Pearson Education. He is the author of three Mac books and one medical book, and he has written for MacAddict and Macworld magazines.

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