The Future of Linux
But while Linux has been successful at the server cluster level, don't expect to see it on many Hess desktopsat least not yet. Sure, Potter's desktop runs on Linux, so he can look at 3-D depth migrations. He's also got a Sun workstation to run GeoQuest and estimates that about 10 percent of what were once Solaris desktop machines run Linux. As more third-party applications become available on Linux, he says, that figure might grow to 30 percent in a couple of years.
CIO Ross expects the migration from Unix to Linux at Hess to continue over the next several years, but he, too, believes the vast majority of desktop machines will remain on Windows. The investment in Windows PCs is largely a sunk cost, Ross says, and users are accustomed to them. Linux will, however, make inroads at the server level, displacing NT and Unix.
Hess' approach dovetails with industry trends. A recent report from the Forrester Group entitled "The Linux Tipping Point" finds that 72 percent of 50 large companies ($1 billion-plus) surveyed intend to use more Linux in 2004, and about a fourth of those are replacing Windows servers with Linux servers. Thirteen of the 50 respondents were using Linux on the desktop or on workstations. "Proprietary Unix is stone-cold dead," says Ted Schadler, who wrote the report for Forrester. Linux is "good enough" for most jobs, he says, delivering the same workloads as, say, Solaris on Sun servers at a fraction of the cost.
Further, Red Hat Inc., the open source operating systems company, has introduced an enterprise version of its software that is more robust than the free, downloadable code and maintains compatibility as older versions are replaced, says Paul Cormier, executive vice president of engineering for Red Hat. "Previously, no thought was given to continuity," he acknowledges, but as Linux use increases across hundreds or thousands of machines, upgrades will become difficult without such compatibility. "Linux is growing up," Cormier says.
But will third-party support improve, and can Linux remain united instead of fracturing into various flavors like Unix did two decades ago? AT&T's Bell Laboratories, which developed Unix, liberally licensed it to other users. With no central body governing development, companies like Sun, IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and others developed proprietary versions. "What is to prevent the same thing happening to Linux?" Schadler asks.
Back in New York, Hess CIO Ross shares those questions, and says he doesn't want to go down the same road as many Unix proponents, whose motto often seems to be Anything But Microsoft. "In many ways, the whole vendor side of Linux is promulgated upon dislike of Microsoft, which I find to be a flimsy reason," Ross says. "Linux is attractive because it's free, but what's the real technical differentiator?" To be attractive for broader use, Linux "has got to come up with something better than that," Ross adds. Indeed, for Hess' engineering applications, the rationale for moving to Linux was not "let's get rid of Microsoft," but "let's get rid of IBM and Sun," Ross says. As proprietary systems, "they were much more expensive while Linux [as open source] gives us much more control over programming. That's the ultimate differentiator."
To be sure, Hess' Houston lab isn't complaining. When it comes to gathering and analyzing oil exploration information, Linux is helping Hess create a whole new kind of gusherone it hopes will be able to spew savings for many years to come.
Karen Southwick is a San Francisco-based freelance writer, Debra D'Agostino is a staff reporter for CIO Insight and Marcia Stepanek is the magazine's Executive Editor. Please send comments and questions on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.