Linux is picking up support among federal users

Linux is picking up support among federal users

At a workshop in Washington, speakers note the growing use of the open-source OS in research labs

By Patricia Daukantas

GCN Staff

No longer just a skunk works' answer to budget problems, the Linux open-source operating system is gaining support in government research laboratories and other areas, federal and industry speakers said at a recent workshop in Washington.

Developed eight years ago as a Unix clone OS for PCs, Linux is now officially supported at one Energy Department lab, according to a National Institute of Standards and Technology scientist who has used Linux for six years.

Most federal installations still buy or download Linux in small quantities, and the absence of large orders makes it difficult to estimate the total federal use, NIST physicist Przemek Klosowski said at a September Linux University workshop for federal users.

Open to change

Klosowski, computer and data acquisition group leader at the NIST Center for Neutron Research in Gaithersburg, Md., praised the OS' openness to customization and extension. What he called the lean-and-mean design principles of the open-source OS serve it well, he said.

Peer review by thousands of users around the world gives Linux better security than other OSes have, said Klosowski, founder of the Washington, D.C., Linux User Group. When commercial software vendors discontinue a product or go out of business, mission-critical systems are harmed, he said.

Users who suffer computer crashes caused by Microsoft Windows generally just reboot and move on, Klosowski said. But Linux has acquired more of a reputation for quality. If there is a crash, people worry about it and are more inclined to insist on bug fixes, he said.

The OS' rapid development cycle means that newly discovered problems are addressed relatively quickly, and some Linux experts compete for the honor of fixing a bug within hours, not weeks or months, he said.

Open-source software also has greater accountability than proprietary counterparts because users can analyze source code and pinpoint blame for glitches, Klosowski said.

The government should be vendor-neutral, he said. 'Is it fair that the government should say the standard for information exchange should be Office 2000?'' he asked. 'I think there should be some debate about that.''

Klosowski said that although the commercial acceptance of Linux is uneven, hundreds of workers use Linux at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., where it is an officially supported research platform.

In other sessions at the Linux workshop, representatives of SGI, Oracle Corp., Corel Corp., Red Hat Inc. of Durham, N.C., and other companies discussed Linux security, interoperability, the OpenGL architecture, Linux office suites, database capabilities and Web serving.

The workshop was sponsored by SGI, which recently released several Linux enterprise servers with Intel Corp. processors.

Howard Levenson, SGI's business development manager for federal systems, said his company is not abandoning its longtime proprietary Irix version of Unix, however.

Unlike Linux, which was originally designed for PCs, Irix scales up to 512-processor configurations handling terabytes of data, Levenson said.

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