Linux: Open For Business

Linux: Open For Business

Linux and other open-source software can offer competitive advantages where cost and customization pressures are concerned.

It is fair to say that if you interface with a computer of any kind for a living, you already are a user of Linux. As the operating system that runs on the most diverse range of computer architectures -- from servers to desktops to PDAs and cell phones -- Linux is both a pervasive and permanent part of the burgeoning global data network. Because it lacks the marketing muscle behind its proprietary competition, open source software such as Linux has remained largely behind the scenes. However, as price pressures continue to squeeze the manufacturing marketplace, the freely available source code, lack of licensing fees and freedom from per-unit royalties that open source offers are pushing Linux into the spotlight.

One way for manufacturing executives to look at open source is as a less expensive, more flexible IT raw material input. As open-source software developer and evangelist Si Chen sees it, decision makers are buying in to Linux due to the dual drivers of cost and customization. "Open source is benefiting from a natural selection process where the applications are a better fit, when requirements are highly differentiated, lots of customization is required or commercial options are too expensive," he asserts.

Interoperability is another benefit of the free software movement. Many manufacturers have legacy ERP systems or green-screen shop-floor and warehouse applications running on outdated UNIX systems, but often don't have a lot of extra budget dollars to update everything at once, especially on a proprietary basis. Therefore, looking to Linux may help maximize IT investments to update everything from shop-floor servers to engineering desktops to office applications.

The Linux penguin etched onto a microprocessor.
Ed Harper, CIO of Spring Lake, Mich.-based industrial manufacturer Hines Corp., says that he was able to procure a more robust ERP solution than would have been possible in a proprietary environment. "We are implementing a Web-based ERP system on Linux that will give customers online access to their invoices and inventory," says Harper. "Because of the hardware requirements, we could not have afforded to do it with any other platform."

According to IDC analyst Al Gillen, Linux has been making strong inroads as a server operating system across industries on a worldwide basis, but desktop uptake has been weak so far. However, he notes that "there are exceptions to these rules, in particular where some emerging markets [such as Asia] are driving the overall worldwide adoption of Linux client operating environments."

No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

However attractive free software may seem, IDC analyst Al Gillen is quick to remind purchasers that acquisition cost isn't the full story: "The cost of [IT] is typically dominated by labor costs, which can make up 60% to 75% of the three- or five-year cost of ownership."

Europe is also ahead of the trend where robust, client-oriented Linux adoptions are concerned. Automaker Renault recently reconfigured its tailored Web sites to run a hosted solution on Red Hat's Enterprise Linux, and Fiat built a three-tier sales support and customer relationship management tool based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Oracle9i.

Another large European automaker, PSA Peugeot Citron, just signed a multiyear contract with open-software company Novell Inc., allowing the deployment of up to 20,000 Linux desktops plus 2,500 Linux servers into its Windows-based infrastructure.


Linux = Lean?

"Manufacturing CIOs have the opportunity to contribute to their company's lean initiatives by doing what their colleagues in operations do every day -- reduce waste in their environment," claims Lucy Guatta, industry manufacturing marketing manager with Novell Inc. According to Guatta, a Linux migration offers manufacturers the opportunity to:

  • Reduce IT infrastructure costs by moving applications off of more expensive servers onto Linux.
  • Dynamically allocate IT resources with virtualization technology, which reduces wasted server capacity.
  • Automate systems management (upgrades, patches, etc.) across the enterprise, allowing for reduced IT staffing expenses.
  • Move to "thin client," server-based systems with reduced desktop footprints wherever possible. Examples of possible applications include shop-floor kiosks, customer service/call center desktops, engineering workstations and field sales team deployments.

On a similar note, the British government's Office of Government Commerce released a report in March stating, "Apart from reductions in the cost of software licenses, the benefits of open source can include cost avoidance through reductions in replacement cycles of hardware, improved software reliability and security, software platform stability, the ability to tailor and modify the software, easier administration and greater scalability of hardware platforms." A major UK manufacturing organization quotes its hardware refresh period for Linux systems as six to eight years, as opposed to three to four years for Windows.

Finally, Linux itself is modular in nature, allowing developers to construct a tailored software set that fits whatever footprint is needed, thus eliminating some of the code overhead present in proprietary, multi-use operating systems. This helps explain why Linux is fast becoming the OS of choice for tech product developers worldwide.

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