|This article was published in the August 1999 issue of
Permission to reproduce graciously granted by Declan McColgan, editor of Irish
Computer and author of this article.
Linux takes root in Ireland
A growing band of users in Ireland is taking to Linux with enthusiasm. Lower
cost, users say, is only one of the benefits.
Linux solutions are gaining steam, with advocates touting the platform's
openness and customisation features. According to IDC Research, Linux is the
world's fastest-growing server operating environment. In 1998, some 690,000
Linux operating environments were shipped, reflecting a 190 per cent growth
rate and 17 per cent of all new server operating environments.
Specific figures for Ireland are more difficult to find. The experience of
Oracle, however, may not be untypical. In the first half of this year, 25
Irish-based organisations purchased Oracle products for deployment on Linux
platforms. Most of these were software development firms, but there were also
a couple of large commercial organisations that are currently investigating
the OS with a view to doing large-scale rollouts at a future date.
The Irish Linux Users Group (ILUG) asserts that Linux use is even more
widespread. (The existence of a thriving user group, with offshoots in Galway
and Cork, is further evidence of the spread of Linux.) ILUG claims Linux
fulfils many roles in the Irish commercial sector. For example, ILUG says, it
is being used to supervise Windows NT boxes and reboot them when things go
awry. It is also used as an image server for bulk installation of software on
Other typical uses include Internet gateways, firewalls, email servers, ftp
servers, file servers, print servers, virtual Web servers and so on. It is
also widely used for network monitoring. More unusually, it is used as a
serial port server by Galway-based Blue Tree Systems, a company developing
software for communicating with data logging devices, as an alternative to
carrying loggers, power supplies, sensors and cabling around to individual
However, users still consistently complain that Linux is too difficult to
install, and Linux enthusiasts concede that it is not for the faint-hearted.
ILUG member Owen Kelly, author of The Beginner's Linux Guide, admits that
there are problems in this area. Speaking on TechTV recently he said, "It's
not for people who are technically challenged. You want to have a good idea of
how your computer works. With Linux you are digging down deep into the core
of the system. You could change things with Linux that could actually destroy
your machine if you don't know what you are doing.
"Eventually it is planned that Linux will become as easy to install and use as
Windows. I can see that happening in the next five to 10 years and when that
happens, we could see a big market turnaround."
Seeking to address these concerns, the IT industry's major organisations have
rowed in with a plethora of support announcements over recent months. Computer
Associates said it plans to support OpenLinux in its TNG systems management
framework. IBM plans to support OpenLinux in its global training centre
network and will make its DB2 database available on Linux platforms through
partners. Hewlett-Packard has launched a 24-hour technical support service to
provide customers with around-the-clock worldwide support of Linux and HP
Linux applications. HP's new support services include a maximum two-hour
response time commitment, and immediate response for critical calls, on
multi-vendor Intel-based platforms.
At the end of June, Dell decided to take the installation bull by the horns.
On Dell's Web site, customers can order Red Hat Linux 6.0 factory-installed on
select, certified configurations of Dell Precision workstations. Dell said the
move is a response to growing customer demand worldwide for systems configured
with Linux and boasted that it is the first major European systems vendor to
offer Web ordering of systems with Red Hat Linux already installed.
Apart from the obvious cost benefits, what are the other attractions of Linux?
According to the ILUG's Colm Buckley, reliability is a major factor: "In the
Department of Computer Science at Trinity College, Linux servers are slowly
edging out NT servers for file/print server. They're easier to maintain and
they `go wrong' considerably less often." Linux advocates argue that Linux is
much more stable than Windows NT. It requires less hardware resources and is
more versatile and robust.
Kenn Humborg, chief technical officer of Blue Tree Systems told the ILUG's Ken
Guest what had impressed him about Linux. Blue Tree Systems was founded four
years ago by two electronic engineering postgraduate students from NUI, Galway.
The company currently employs eight software developers, mainly producing
software for the transportation industry. Its largest customer is Thermo King
Blue Tree's first Linux machine was used for the company's firewall. There
were a few factors affecting that decision.
"First off, I was not convinced about the out-of-the-box security of NT in
such a hostile environment," said Humborg. "I didnít know enough about NT to
be confident that I'd be able to make it secure enough.
"Secondly, I wanted to run quite a few services on this box, including mail,
news, WWW cache, Web server, ftp server and DNS server. I felt that doing all
this with NT would cost quite a bit in both hardware and software, whereas
with Linux I could use Open Source software all the way and make use of an
older machine which was no longer any use for development."
As a third factor, Humborg complained of troubleshooting difficulties with NT.
"Fourthly, I can admin my Linux firewall from home, which I can't do with NT
(or at least wouldn't be anywhere near as comfortable doing it)."
Blue Tree's second Linux installation is a test machine that allows
programmers to select between numerous OS and application configurations in
very little time. "We needed the ability to test our software under
everything from Windows 3.1 to Windows 98/NT4 with and without MSOffice and in
various languages," said Humborg. "It's also important to be able to go back
to a well-known configuration when troubleshooting and doing QA. So, I split a
large hard drive into a small (500Mb) partition for the OS under test and
installed Linux on the remainder. Two trivially simple scripts allow us to
save and restore compressed images of the small partition. Developing this
solution without Linux would have taken longer and given me much less
flexibility." Although Humborg says Blue Tree is unlikely to open-source its
own major products, he acknowledges the contribution that the Open Source
model has made to the company's infrastructure. "Infrastructure is vital. You
canít build solid systems on a fragile foundation. In addition,
interoperability is vital. This means infrastructure is almost a `natural
monopoly'. Desktop OSes (and essential Internet services) fall into the
category of infrastructure. And nobody really wants to develop for multiple
platforms, so the commercial world seems to tend towards a single-OS
situation. (I'm talking about the desktop market here. Other markets, such as
servers and embedded computing, have very different priorities.) If we are
going to have one dominant OS, it should be Open Source. Otherwise, the
industry becomes subservient to the will of one dominant company. And we all
know that's not a good thing.
"So, my main reasons [for choosing Open Source] are not financial. I will
quite happily pay for a good product. It just happens that I've had fewer
problems dealing with Open Source software than with proprietary software. I
think that the best Open Source products are those that allow anyone to
`scratch their own itch' and contribute features and fixes to the product, but
still have somebody overseeing the whole thing (such as Linus, or the Apache
Group) so that the architectural integrity of the product is maintained."
Although well versed in the benefits of Linux and Open Source products,
Humborg does not go completely against the prevailing Windows grain. For
example, Blue Tree uses Word 95 to produce its documentation. According to
Humborg, there are three reasons for this: "Inertia, interoperability and
functionality. Word is not a particularly bad word processor (although it
falls well short of the mark when dealing with really large documents). For
everyday correspondence and writing user manuals, it does the job. In-house
developer documentation is generally either Word, HTML or plain text,
whichever suits best."
Nor is he likely to begin using any of the growing number of Linux
productivity applications. "All our development is on Windows, so there is no
point in having to use Linux for other productivity tools."