Linux clears scalability, security hurdles

Does Linux have what is takes in terms of scalability, applications, and security? Companies like Weather.com are saying yes.

SCALABILITY

Linux clears scalability, security hurdles

Does Linux have what is takes to accommodate e-businesses in terms of scalability, applications availability and security? Companies like Weather.com are saying yes.

By Edward Hurley, TechTarget

About a year and a half ago, officials at Weather.com wanted to move away from its Unix-based Sun servers in favor of Intel-based boxes. Linux was their answer.

"We looked at both NT and Linux and decided on the latter because we already had quite a bit of Unix experience in-house," said Ian Rushton, Weather.com's chief architect. Saving money on hardware rather than software license fees was the motivator for moving to Intel-based servers, Rushton said.

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There was a trade-off with Linux, namely the investment in training for Weather.com's IT staff so they could handle any outages, he said. By year's end, Weather.com could be "totally Linux," Rushton said, noting there are still a few major hurdles, including the need for a journaling file system.

Can Linux scale enough to accommodate my business? What about the availability of applications? What are the security risks of using open source software? These are all questions CIOs and IT managers have to consider when contemplating Linux.

Trusting the business to open source

Linux has proven scalable enough for Weather.com, one of the Web's most visited sites. The site does between 10 and 15 million page views a day.

Weather.com's migration to Linux was incremental. A few servers were brought online for such things as Web serving. Eventually, Weather.com began running application and database servers on Linux. About a quarter of the site's database needs are now on Linux boxes, which handle the workload of the previous Unix boxes, Rushton said.

However, Linux does have a way to go in terms of actual symmetric multiprocessing beyond two processors, said Peter Honeyman, director of the Center for Information Technology Integration at the University of Michigan. Such a situation does make sense as many of the early Linux developers were focused on desktop systems, not servers.

Honeyman's center has been conducting a project on increasing Linux scalability by examining algorithms and data structures within the operating system. Truly increasing Linux scalability to handle 4, 8, or 16-way symmetric multiprocessing is a major undertaking, he said.

Yet Honeyman dismisses suggestions that scalability is a huge hurdle for Linux when compared to Windows 2000 "which isn't greatly scalable itself," he said. The difference between Linux and Windows is more a marketing and perceptual issue than a technical one, he said. "Companies are spending a lot of money to make Linux look bad and Linux guys are not meeting the challenge," he said.

Open source curse: Applications and security?

Another major common concern of Linux is application availability. Why would software vendors develop or port applications for Linux?

Well, for starters, Linux offers a common development platform for several servers. Everything from small, single-processor Intel boxes up to huge, multiprocessor IBM mainframes can run Linux. IBM and other technology juggernauts have pledged literally billions of dollars to support Linux.

The open source nature of Linux offers companies a great deal of flexibility and control over their software, said Timothy Witham, lab director of the Open Source Development Lab in Beaverton, Ore. For example, developers can change your source code for your requirements. By contrast, proprietary vendors may charge you a lot and not support the resulting product, or not do it all because they can't sell enough copies of it to justify the effort, he said.

The one aspect of Linux that people have trouble understanding is the security aspect. Doesn't open source software mean anyone can learn the security vulnerabilities of it and hence leave the user unprotected?

"Open source software has proven less of a risk because security weaknesses are found before it is ever deployed," said Brian Stevens, CTO, Mission Critical Linux of Lowell, Mass. "And if a security vulnerability does get out, it is usually resolved quickly."

Conversely, with proprietary software, said Darren Davis, vice president of technology strategy and evangelism for Caldera Systems, "you may never know if there are back doors since security experts can't look at (the source code)."

MORE ON THIS TOPIC:

SearchEnterpriseServers has a section on Linux Decision Criteria.

Search390 includes extensive Web links about Linux.

This was first published in July 2001

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