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Big-business technologists keep talking up Linux

Big-business technologists keep talking up Linux

Several IT executives reinforced the idea that Linux now has the technical brawn and industry support to hold up the most demanding business applications in such environments as finance, airline reservations and stock trading.

Speaking at the LinuxWorld Summit this week, top technologists from such firms as Citigroup, Cendant Travel Distribution Services and E*Trade Financial shared their experiences in taking the penguin plunge.

While the next LinuxWorld trade show isn't slated until August in San Francisco, the LinuxWorld Summit offered East Coast IT professionals the chance to exchange best practices and learn about the latest open source technology.

The promises of a successful move to Linux are what every technology-dependent business is after: greater speed, lower costs.

"We were a poster child for Sun," said Joshua Levine, CTO and operations officer at E*Trade Financial. During the Internet boom, he said, E*Trade went on a rampant server consolidation project, moving to some of the largest Sun platforms. "We had done everything quote-unquote right from an Internet company standpoint."

But when the downturn came, and the firm needed to improve its margins, he said, "When you throw everything up a whiteboard, you notice the only technology pricing that's been in a deflationary spiral is around the Intel architecture."

This led the firm to migrate its Unix applications to Linux to take advantage of the lower-cost Intel hardware; Windows on Intel hardware was not an option, he added, since a Unix-to-Linux port was viewed as a simpler jump than Unix-to-Windows. In the end, E*Trade was able to build server platforms on Linux and Intel hardware for around US$38,000, servers improved the performance of similar Sun systems that cost the firm around $250,000.

Citigroup looked at Linux as a way to make more use out of its big iron by running many Linux virtual servers on a single IBM mainframe. The issue with moving to open source, for a company that handles billions in assets, was risk, according to Aaron Graves, vice president of technology.

"One difficulty was understanding how open source can be supported," he said. "It took us a while. We were stalled for many months on legal issues in trying to understand what a support contract for open source means. It was really a different model."

Having the backing of vendors - in Citigroup's case, IBM and SuSE - was key for getting everyone on board with Linux, he said, "as opposed to just working the raw open source code."

For Cendant Travel Distribution Services, which handles backend airfare calculations for such sites as Orbitz.com, CheapTickets.com and United Airlines, reliability was an issue when the firm considered a move from mainframes to Unix and ultimately Linux.

"You can say something is faster and cheaper, but if the system is not up, and you're losing business for every second it's down, no one really cares," said Robert Wiseman, CTO for Cendant Travel Distribution Services.

When the firm was considering a Linux switch, the IT group and executive management had to deal with some scare tactics used by competing vendors. "We had vendors coming in and calling Linux 'freeware' to scare our executives," he said.

After months of testing and work with hardware and software partners, Wiseman was able to create a data center based on distributed dual-processor Intel/Linux servers, which run the company's compute-intensive fare-calculation programs faster than previous mainframes or SMP Unix boxes. He adds that "our uptime [on Linux] has been equal" to the previous two platforms, as well.

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