Web-to Host Connections: The Rise of the Accidental OS

What, exactly, is this animal called Linux? Okay, it’s a penguin. Beyond that, it’s actually a UNIX flavor with a new twist and some interesting potential as a front-end server to your mainframe hosts.

Back in 1992, when Linus Torvalds first introduced his Linux kernel to the world, the thought of corporations running on a free operating system seemed ludicrous. But now, open-source software is gaining ground among IT managers far and wide. The operating system already has strong backing from IBM Corp., which is promoting Linux to its base of 90,000-plus developers and resellers, as well as making the software available across all its PowerPC-based servers.

Plus, surveys confirm that well over a third of all Web servers already run on Linux. The U.K.-based research firm Netcraft Inc. finds that 36 percent of all public Web sites run on Linux. IDC reports that Linux license shipments jumped from 15 percent of server operating system boxes in 1998 to almost 25 percent in the last year.

Granted, most of these are not huge enterprise-scale deployments. But, Linux has tremendous potential for supporting e-business operations. The system is already coming in handy for thin-server tasks, such as firewalls, e-mail servers and development platforms. Equally compelling is Linux’s potential as a Web-to-host middleware platform. Over the past year, leading Web-to-host vendors began offering Linux versions of their Web-to-host solutions, for both the server and client sides of the equation.

Linux was designed as free code that can be distributed over the Internet, to be used and modified any way the user sees fit – as long as the changes are made freely available to others. Torvalds and some close associates dictate what goes into each version of the operating system kernel.

Linux has much to offer e-business operations. For one, it has a very attractive price point, not only in the fact that it’s free, but also that it enables you leverage older hardware. You won’t have to run out and buy the latest and greatest server hardware to build your Web-to-host system. Linux performs well on older boxes, and has even been known to function well on old 486 PCs, IBM RS/6000s and HP and Sun machines.

Since Linux is most widely deployed on commodity-priced Intel boxes, it’s relatively inexpensive to set up server farms that can scale quickly and inexpensively as an e-business site grows, says Rob Ferber, Chief Technologist with OpenSales Inc., a Linux-based e-commerce server provider. "The Web server layer is the native territory of Linux," he notes. "The operating system was built on the Internet, for the Internet."

Not a Perfect Penguin

Of course, there are some caveats with Linux, as well. There isn’t near as much third-party vendor support for Linux as there is for MVS, OS/400, Windows NT/2000 or UNIX. This means issues with technical support. Of course, adding support for deployment and maintenance – which no organization will do without – no longer means Linux is "free." Linux "will never be a zero-cost solution," says Ganesh C. Prasad, Senior Information Specialist in the Internet Development Services group of EDS Australia. The main cost-savings for Linux, versus other vendor-based operating systems, comes in licensing. While a fully configured Microsoft Windows NT Web server installation may run about $4,500 in licenses, a similar Linux-based Web server running Red Hat Linux will incur a one-time fee of about $50, Prasad points out.

Scalability is another issue with Linux. While vendors report Linux scaling up to 24 processors on Alpha and SPARC chips, the system does not scale as well on Intel boxes, hitting a ceiling of four processors. However, support for symmetric multiprocessing is included with version 2.4 of the Linux kernel, and Linux already runs on Intel’s 64-bit Itanium processor.

On the client end, Microsoft still rules the roost. It’s unlikely that there will be widespread Linux adoption in PCs or laptops. IDC estimates that Windows products generated approximately 87 percent of revenues in the client operating system market during 1999 – a number that will not diminish anytime soon.

All in all, Linux offers something that no commercial vendor can top – freedom of choice. This is vital to the mission of Web-to-host, which is to open up big-iron systems to the flexibility of the Web. In mixed platform environments, Linux is worth checking out. As Ferber puts it, "If you constrain people to use only one platform or one particular set of tools, you only get a certain set of problems solved. If you can deploy in a wide range of environments, you’ll find people tackling more situations, and gaining more insights into new business processes."

About the Author: Joseph McKendrick is an independent consultant and author, specializing in surveys, technology research and white papers. He can be reached at joemck@aol.com.