Surf's up for Linux

OS vendors look to ride the wave of rising government interest in open-source software

At the 1999 LinuxWorld Expo in San Jose, Calif., Linus Torvalds joked about his goal for the operating system he started: 'Total world domination.'

Nearly six years later, Linux might not be on every desktop, but it is winning a place in government workplaces around the globe. In fact, Linux has become more than an operating system for many governments'it's be- come a policy decision.

Global embrace

Throughout South America, Eur- ope and Asia, governments are adopting Linux and open-source software as a core element of their IT infrastructures'much to the consternation of Microsoft Corp.

The global embrace of Linux and open source is partially in re-sponse to the cost to many countries of doing business with Microsoft. In China, for example, the government has built its own Linux distribution'even while still buying software from Mi-crosoft'at least partly to give it a stronger negotiating position with software vendors. In Peru, legislators have gone further, pushing through a law that would mandate government use of open-source software.

Linux's appeal goes beyond its price tag, or lack thereof. Because its source code is freely available to developers, and because it's supported by a number of free open-source development tools and applications, Linux offers the governments of developing countries an opportunity to invest in their own countries' technology base rather than sending money off to Redmond, Wash., Armonk, N.Y., or Silicon Valley.

Because Linux runs on older and cheaper hardware, government agencies anywhere can lengthen the lifecycle of their computing hardware. And even with a support contract with Red Hat Inc. or Novell Inc., the acquisition cost of Linux is tiny in comparison with deploying a new version of Windows on existing hardware. That's been key to its growing presence in state and local government agencies in the United States as well.

But pinning down the size of that presence would be difficult. 'I doubt there's a state or large county that isn't running some open-source or Linux,' says Alan Kraft, Novell's vice president for federal solutions. 'But many of them haven't paid us for service. It would be almost impossible for someone to say, 'Here are the numbers.' '

The numbers vendors do have are big enough to get their attention. Red Hat, for example, re- cently set up a dedicated government business unit. But while Linux has made major inroads among U.S. state and local governments, it hasn't had the same success at the federal level.

There are some major exceptions. Linux has found a home in scientific applications'and federal researchers have made major contributions to the Linux community. The Energy Department uses both Novell's SuSE and Red Hat, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also uses Red Hat.

'We're mainly in agencies like NASA and [Energy],' said Wendy Spindler, director of solutions marketing for Novell's SuSE unit, 'and more in the R&D side of the house. We have great adoption in the intelligence community, but not a lot in the Defense Department or regular users in other agencies.'

NASA has perhaps the most hardcore Linux shop in the federal government. The space agency does a great deal of software development on the LAMP platform, as developers refer to the collection of open-source software that includes Linux, the Apache Software Foundation's Apache Web server, the MySQL database, and the Perl and Python scripting languages.

The Beowulf Linux cluster supercomputing technology, which al- lows cheap, networked, Linux-powered PCs to work together as a massively parallel supercomputer, was developed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. And the agency is even developing a version of Linux for embedded systems on spacecraft, called FlightLinux.

And while Defense hasn't widely deployed Linux on administrative networks, the OS is quietly finding its way into the military within weapons systems, avionics and other embedded computers. The Navy has specified Linux as part of its Navy Open Architecture program, and embedded versions of Linux, such as LynuxWorks' BlueCat, are used as the basis for an array of special applications.

Elsewhere in government, concerns about support have been a major hurdle for the OS, according to Novell's Kraft. 'A few years ago, if you were a large agency, Red Hat was a very small company and there were reasons to doubt that they could handle the level of support you'd require. Red Hat is an excellent software company, but the main adopters of Red Hat are engineers,' he said.

But that's changed. 'It used to be that no one ever got fired for becoming dependent on Microsoft. But we're at a turning point; soon, people might get fired for not understanding open source.'

It's been almost two years since the Office of Management and Budget made Linux part of its Technical Reference Model for enterprise architectures. OMB recently in- structed Federal CIOs to consider open-source software on an equal footing with commercial software when making procurement decisions. But OMB also pointed out that CIOs needed to look at the potential licensing and security problems that might accompany open source.

At first glance, it would seem that security is hardly as much of an issue for Linux as it is for Windows. Linux hasn't been plagued by the kinds of viruses and frequent security exploits that have harried Windows users. But the open nature of Linux has been used to both promote and criticize its security, depending on where the comments are coming from.

Security improving

Many of the lingering doubts about Linux security are being dispelled, however. SuSE recently achieved a Common Criteria Evaluation Assurance Level 4 rating'the same level assigned to OSes such as Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Trusted Solaris and the highest for any non-embedded Linux OS so far.

Embedded Linux can theoretically be- come even more secure than many specialized operating systems. LynuxWorks is combining BlueCat with its LynxOS 178 real-time operating system'a Posix-based OS designed to meet the safety requirements for aviation systems'to develop a Linux environment that can be certified at Common Criteria's EAL-7.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for Linux, however, has been winning converts from other server operating systems who are comfortable with their own management tools and system administration skill sets. But that resistance, too, is beginning to wane as more commercial applications move to Linux, and open-source tools such as the mySQL database and Eclipse development environment rise to the level of commercial alternatives.

Novell is doing its best to give the holdouts a friendly shove into Linux. It has merged Linux with its network services strategy and is all but eliminating the differences between its proprietary NetWare OS and its SuSE Linux server.

This spring, Novell plans to unveil Open Enterprise Server, which provides all the functionality of the company's Novell NetWare on the Linux platform. The company's NetWare customers will be able to get Open Enterprise Server free as part of their software maintenance.

Momentum seems to be in Linux's favor. Linux vendors have been effective in replacing existing commercial sector Unix installations over the past few years. But Sun's recent moves to make its Solaris 10 OS open source'and to essentially give away the commercial version of the OS and patch support for it'have certainly muddied the waters a bit, at least for Sun customers who might have otherwise gone for Linux. Whether OpenSolaris turns out to be a real Linux competitor or just a holding action by Sun remains to be seen.

S. Michael Gallagher, a Maryland network manager, writes about computer technology.

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