Is open source a software product or a philosophy? CIOs don't really care, as long as it soothes their headaches rather than creating new ones.
CIOs have always fanatically sought to simplify their IT architectures—and no more so than in recent years, as companies struggled to align their IT programs with business strategy while putting a premium on stripping away unnecessary costs, complexity and risk. So why in the world would CIOs give a second glance to a new software infrastructure such as Linux, developed by a loose federation of thousands of individual programmers operating outside the womb of a highly structured technology provider?
CIOs and others believe it's simple: Linux has proved its mettle in relatively commoditized but increasingly important uses, such as Web infrastructure and file/print/network services. Now it's moving toward prime-time status for mission-critical applications. For more and more CIOs, the question of whether to deploy Linux has been resolved, thanks to widespread agreement on its reliability, cost efficiency and solid support from a growing list of top vendors. Instead, CIOs are now turning their attention to the nitty-gritty question of how and where the software fits into their IT programs. "Particularly for early adopters who are comfortable with new technologies in general, it has definitely become a strategic asset," says Scott Lundstrom, who heads the technology research practice at AMR Research in Boston.
One company that has moved to an open-source model for its infrastructure requirements is Mobil Travel Guide in Park Ridge, Ill., a division of Exxon Mobil Corp. that publishes guides and other information for travelers. "We weren't necessarily looking for Linux, but when our business partner recommended it and explained the rationale, we realized it was a very good choice for us, because it would keep up with us as our needs increased," says CIO and senior vice president Paul Mercurio. "The technology is so much more mature today than when we made the decision 18 months ago, with companies like IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. endorsing it and actively supporting it."
Of course, few if any companies see technology products as strategies unto themselves, and Linux is no exception. "Linux is an operating system, not a business strategy," says Scot Klimke, CIO of Network Appliance Inc., a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based supplier of network storage systems. "Linux does have some clear benefits, such as helping us meet the business objective of reducing overall IT expense, but Linux is only one vehicle for doing that."
Certainly, Linux has its limitations: Most agree that its performance still doesn't scale particularly well, especially compared to Unix, its chief competitor for large-scale infrastructure needs. And, of course, there's the reality of Linux's relative dearth of enterprise business applications, compared with Windows.
But those concerns are diminishing. At Rochester, N.Y.-based Harris Interactive Inc., a market research and consulting services firm, CIO Peter Milla says that while Linux isn't yet occupying a strategic place in his IT plan, its benefit is clear: significant cost savings over the Unix-based architecture he was using for data-tabulation applications. "It was a real no-brainer for us," he says. "It's a $20,000 investment in a tier-one [Compaq] box, which allowed us to increase our throughput and avoid a $100,000 investment in an H-P Unix box. Like most companies, we have a lot of Intel-based expertise on staff, and this lets us leverage that."
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