Vendors Heed Growing Demand for Linux-Based BI Solutions

Enterprises look to Linux to cut costs, with financial services leading the charge, but will SCO's latest Linux lawsuits stymie demand?

The SCO Group Inc. last week expanded its war against Linux, filing lawsuits against two prominent enterprise users of Linux, AutoZone Inc. and DaimlerChrysler AG.

With many prominent BI purveyors shipping Linux-ready versions of their software, and with Linux finding uptake in support of a variety of BI applications, it’s possible that SCO’s move could have ramifications for IT organizations that are using Linux to support their BI initiatives.

To recap, SCO filed suit against IBM Corp. last March for $1 billion, charging Big Blue with, among other things, illegally misappropriating SCO’s proprietary code into Linux. Since then, SCO has on two occasions increased the amount in damages it is seeking, first to $3 billion and now to $5 billion. Last May, the embattled vendor also signaled its intent to pursue enterprise users of Linux, sending letters to 1,500 Global 2000 organizations.

Ironically, SCO’s action came only weeks after two prominent business intelligence (BI) vendors, Actuate Corp. and Hyperion Solutions Corp., announced new support for Linux across their BI stacks. Actuate and Hyperion, of course, are far from the only BI players supporting Linux to one degree or another: Business Objects SA, MicroStrategy Inc., and SAS Institute Inc., are among the many companies supporting Linux across one or more of their product offerings.

What’s more, many vendors say, demand for Linux-ready versions of their products is starting to ramp up. “The feedback we’re getting now is that for various reasons, things like shrinking IT budgets, as well as potential performance improvements, customers are increasingly turning to [Linux],” confirms Rob Berry, director of product marketing for Hyperion. “Even those that haven’t, quite a few have told us that the only thing holding them back is support from enterprise software vendors.”

Adam Wilson, senior director of development with Informatica Corp., says that the issue of Linux support has become a deal-breaker for many of his company’s customers. “I get on calls with customers and prospects in the sales rep and implementation cycles, what I’m seeing is that there’s definitely been a big spike in [Linux] being a critical requirement in deals we go into,” he says, noting that Informatica supports Linux on all of its products.

On the other hand, some BI players say that they’re not seeing a great deal of demand for Linux-ready versions of their products.

“We constantly solicit feedback from our customers and weigh their needs regarding platform support versus feature/functionality,” said Jenny Russell, a spokesperson for BI powerhouse Cognos Inc., in an e-mailed statement. “Right now, Cognos will only provide Linux support if there is significant customer traction. As of now, we aren't seeing that customer traction as yet."

Is Mainstream BI Headed to Linux?

All signs are that Linux’ emergence as a mainstream BI platform will continue to accelerate. Last week, for example, Oracle Corp. announced a world record TPC-H 3 TB benchmark result for its Oracle 10g database and Oracle Real Application Clusters running on clustered Linux servers. In fairness, Oracle is currently the only vendor that has submitted a 3 TB TPC-H test result, so it’s “world record” claims should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, says Mike Schiff, a senior analyst with consultancy Current Analysis Inc., Oracle is fully within its rights to trumpet the low cost and scalability of its Linux clusters. “Giving Oracle its due, its 3 TB TPC-H Linux result currently holds the top price/performance position, irrespective of platform,” Schiff writes

Oracle isn’t the only data warehouse in town for Linux, either. IBM Corp., Sybase Inc., and other vendors market Linux-ready versions of their relational database platforms, and there are a host of open source database competitors, as well. In fact, a recent report from consultancy AMR Research Inc., argued that open-source databases such as MySQL will reach technical parity with their closed source counterparts by 2006, resulting in widespread usage. One reason for this, writes AMR analyst J. Paul Kirby, is that conventional closed source databases are too expensive—and IT organizations have too many of them.

“If what customers say means anything, cost containment is compelling many to simplify their database landscapes for two simple reasons: They have too many databases from too many vendors, and the databases themselves are too expensive and too hard to administer,” he writes.

Among existing customers that have deployed BI solutions on top of Linux, financial services firms are leading the charge. “They tend to be pretty cutting edge in terms of the technologies that they put into production,” confirms Informatica’s Wilson. “Their budgets tend to be bigger, of course, but there’s a greater emphasis on cutting costs and showing good return on investment.”

Jeff Morris, director of product marketing for Actuate, agrees, noting that Linux naturally lends itself to applications—such as grid computing—that are spurring uptake in the financial services industry and other verticals. “We’re seeing strong demand from financial services companies, and I think a lot of that is being driven because there’s clever ways to deploy it, like in a grid, like leveraging some of the high scalability clustering that it supports, so I think originally it was a low-cost appealing platform, but right now, with the way that it’s evolved, it’s got a lot of robust features and the number of applications that are supporting it continues to grow,” he comments.

In addition to the financial services vertical, says Hyperion product manager Srikant Gokulnatha, Linux is emerging as a popular BI choice for “retailers, online companies, and really anybody that has a large server farm.” Gokulnatha acknowledges that Linux’ low-cost has been a major contributor to its ascendance, but says there’s another important factor as well. “The one phenomenon is that PC-based servers are catching up in performance in comparison to traditional Big Iron Unix servers, so if you can get comparable performance from a PC server box running Linux compared to a Unix box, but at a fraction of the price, it becomes an obvious choice,” he concludes.

Not surprisingly, most Linux-related BI activity is taking place on the server, these vendors say. That’s largely a reflection of the ubiquity of Windows on the enterprise desktop, although vendors such as Actuate, Business Objects, Cognos, Hyperion, MicroStrategy, and SAS support Web-based reporting tools, which allow users on Unix- or Linux-based clients to download and view reports in a Web browser.

None of the vendors with whom we spoke anticipate that SCO’s actions will do much to dampen enthusiasm for Linux-related BI products and services among customers. “I haven’t heard anything from my customers to the effect that they are concerned about [SCO]. I don’t think [SCO’s lawsuits] factor at all into their decision-making,” confirms Actuate’s Morris.

Informatica’s Wilson, for his part, concedes that while some of his company’s customers may be watching the SCO saga “with interest,” he doubts that they’re “taking it seriously enough that it is causing them to have second thoughts” about deploying Informatica’s products on top of Linux.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.