Fear the penguin

Linux is poised to give users of Microsoft operating systems a cost-effective, viable alternative

March 01, 2003 |

For about as long as most people in the A/E/C industry have been depending on mini-computers to do back-office processing, the machines have been powered by some version of the Unix operating system. As these minicomputers were replaced with server networks, network operating systems from Microsoft have grown to be the dominant choice. Meanwhile, desktop computers also fitted with a Microsoft-brand system have remained a constant. Today, having a Microsoft "shop" in the A/E/C industry is pretty much the standard.

But an up-and-coming operating system called Linux is poised to give users of both Microsoft's network and desktop systems a cost-effective and viable alternative. Having made significant headway in money-flush brokerage houses and cutting-edge movie studios, cost-strapped IT departments in A/E/C firms may well want to take note of the current status of Linux.

Computer industry analysts estimate that nearly 20% of the back-office server systems in Wall Street's big brokerage houses are currently running Linux. Technology research firm IDC, Framingham, Mass., predicts sales of Linux-powered servers to continue growing by 15-20% each year though 2006. In fact, New York brokerage giant Goldman Sachs released a study in January titled Fear the Penguin (named after the Linux's logo, the penguin). The study asserts that IT buyers will increasingly use Linux to take advantage of lower-cost, higher-performance Intel-based servers and to avoid premium-priced proprietary systems. "Market forces are in place for it also to become the dominant OS on the higher-end servers of the enterprise data center," the study says.

That may well be significant in how much the A/E/C industry is affected, especially when coupled with the growing trend in high-end rendering used by movie studios. Linux now dominates that industry — Linux desktops, rendering farms, and servers have been adopted by all of the leading movie studios. Firms such as Disney, Pixar, Digital Domain, Dreamworks, and Industrial Light and Magic have used Linux on such noteworthy animation projects as Shrek, Scooby-Doo, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings. A scan of the past few years reveals how entertainment-industry graphics have worked their way into the A/E/C business.

Open Systems

Linux was initially created as a hobby by a young student, Linus Torvalds, at the University of Helsinki in Finland. Unlike Windows and AppleOS, Linux is what techies call an open system, in that there are no secrets on how it operates. The major benefit is that everyone that works with it can also work on it — fix bugs that they find, share those fixes with the world, and share improvements to the system. All of the above has been happening on a smaller scale for years with Linux in Europe and the U.S.

Linux technically has no owner to speak of, so technically it's free. Most people, however, procure it through a packager, and the two popular packagers of Linux — Red Hat Inc., Research Park, N.C., and Oakland, Calif.-based SuSe Inc. — sell most of the server operating systems at next to nothing. So rather than having to pay for networks powered by IBM servers running AIX and Sun Microsystems servers running Solaris, businesses are increasingly choosing lower-cost Hewlett-Packard and Dell computers running Linux to host their networks. Those same HPs and Dells have been the stronghold of Microsoft's 2000 and .Net server systems, but users are increasingly picking Linux instead. As an aside, IBM believes in the coming of Linux so much that over a year ago it dedicated roughly $1 billion of the company's efforts to using it. Now HP is ramping up for Linux.

On the desktop, Linux is making waves as well. Over the past six months, a desktop version of Linux from San Diego-based Lindows.com Inc. called Lindows has made some major strides towards acceptance. Wal-Mart made headlines last fall when it began selling on its Web site for $199 an Intel-compatible, Lindows-powered desktop computer. Between September and December the retailer sold so many systems that it had to stop taking orders while the backlogged hardware manufacturer, La Puente, Calif.-based Microtel Computer Systems, caught up with the orders. Since then, the retailer has also sold slightly higher-priced machines with another version of Linux called Desktop/Lx from Redmond, Wash.-based Lycoris Inc.

While there have been some false starts, the move to Linux is growing. Dell Computer, for example, stopped preloading Linux on desktop computers last year due to low customer interest, but is now shipping Red Hat Linux on its workstations.

In the CAD arena, Needham, Mass.-based Parametric Technology Corp., the firm that brought major changes to the mechanical CAD arena in the mid-1980s with the release of its parametric-based software, released in January a version of Pro/Engineer for the Linux platform. Overland, Kan.-based SoftwareForge Inc., has offered and updated LinuxCAD every year since its release in 1998. While nowhere near the robustness features and support of AutoCAD or MicroStation, the low-end price tag ($89) of its current 3-D version released in June 2002 may make it worth a try.

Applications such as Microsoft Office can also run on Linux with an inexpensive adapter program such as CrossOver Office from St. Paul, Minn.-based Codeweavers Inc. In fact, the company this quarter plans to release a major upgrade of CrossOver Office, version 2.0, that for the first time supports Office XP and Microsoft Access. The product currently supports earlier Microsoft Office versions, Internet Explorer, Lotus Notes, Intuit Quicken, and Microsoft Visio. Linux also comes with WINE, an efficient Windows emulation program that allows users to run many native Windows programs. Users can also select Star Office, a Microsoft Office-compatible suite of products from Sun Microsystems that is currently being given away for free.

In January, financial software vendor J.D. Edwards Inc., Denver, Colo., released a version of its software for Linux. Other financial software vendors running on Linux include Linux Business Accounting Systems, Arroyo Grande, Calif. (www.linuxledgers.com), which sells a Linux version of its popular Unix-based General Ledger and Accounting System. Single-user desktop licenses start at $35, while the firm's system also runs on larger IBM minicomputers and IBM servers.

Also in January, at the LinuxWorld show in New York, SuSE unveiled SuSE Linux Office Desktop. The launch, the first result of SuSe's desktop initiative, is deemed significant because it enables users to run Microsoft Office, as well as Sun StarOffice, on the Linux desktop. The debut of the long-awaited Mozilla Web browser, which is bundled on several Linux distributions, has also inspired more desktop use.

Even handheld devices are up for the system. Continuing its push to boost support for Linux, IBM announced in January a partnership with Japanese electronics giant Sharp that will deliver a device targeting business users. Dubbed the Enterprise Edition Zaurus, this handheld running a Linux/Java OS represents a new commitment to what IBM contends is increased corporate investment in Linux. Many more devices are either in the pipeline or already developed. A detailed listing is available at: www.linuxdevices.com/articles.

As of this writing, the Desktop Linux community is reorganizing itself. In an apparent disagreement over the direction of an upcoming conference with Michael Robertson, chairman of Lindows.com Inc., vendors such as HP, SuSe, Codeweavers, and Lycoris pulled out of the Linux-themed conference and announced the formation of the new consortium to sponsor a vendor-neutral Linux desktop conference this spring. Backing for the show is expected by major players such as IBM and HP.

Finally, News.com reported February 6 that Sam's Club is joining sister company Wal-Mart to start offering dirt-cheap desktops running Linux. Sam's is using a different supplier than Wal-Mart, and the computers come preloaded with Red Hat Linux. So, with complete Linux-power desktop computers packaged with flat-panel LCD monitors now selling for a grand total of about $400, the famous "first home, then work" technology wave may once again sweep through the A/E/C industry.

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