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Penguin in flight

Penguin in flight

The last thing Andrew Care would call himself is a Linux geek. If anything, says Air New Zealand’s acting CIO, “I’m an IT cynic; I’m not one of the brigade that’s out there modifying Linux, and I was actually surprised at how well it’s gone into organisations, especially large ones.”

So since Care has been overseeing the airline’s much-publicised implementation of Linux on one of its IBM mainframes — the first large-scale commercial implementation of Linux in the country — it’s safe to say the migration to an open-source environment was not undertaken lightly.

The move is part of a renewed outsourcing agreement with IBM Global Services under which Air New Zealand is replacing 150 Compaq servers with a single IBM Z800 mainframe running Linux (with a second being set up for disaster recovery and system redundancy), the IBM Websphere platform, DB2 database and Tivoli software. The open-source Bynari email application is replacing 4000 Microsoft Exchange email and file and print clients.

But Care sees the operation in terms of an ongoing goal: to reduce the total cost of ownership around IT and therefore to the business.

“It’s a constant driver — to improve service levels, change the way we do things, enable the business to meet whatever its objectives are, but at the same time ensure that the costs are at the right level. So you’ve got to really take Linux in that overall context, rather than us suddenly being hooked by it and leaping off into the beyond.”

And an operating system that can sit across multiple platforms makes sense when part of your IT strategy is to consolidate and simplify.

“You can consolidate platforms, consolidate so that your hardware costs drop, your software costs drop; make them less complex so that they’re easier to administer — all those good things,” Care says.

“But, typically, you can go so far and then you get into the law of diminishing returns. And IT platforms are no different in terms of how they conform to that law. You can do so much and then you start eking it out, so you’ve got to look for a steep change. In our case, part of our IT strategy, to help simplify, has been to go for packages rather that build ourselves, and we apply that principle down into the processing layer, if you like, the ­platforms.”

Watching brief

Air New Zealand, one of the country’s largest IT users, keeps a watching brief on leading-edge technologies, whether they relate to cellphones, servers or software. “It’s part of our normal processes. There’s an architectural review process, a kind of continual one we have, where we’re looking out in the marketplace — what are the new technologies coming out, what benefits will they bring, what costs are associated with them, what risks …? We typically go through a proof of concept and then a pilot. So we’re just taking it through our usual processes to make sure we don’t cause issues and we mitigate any risks around that.”

Care says Linux started attracting the Air New Zealand IT team’s attention three or four years ago as it began to move into the mainstream. They watched as other commercial businesses started using Linux, “particularly in the web arena”. When companies like Cisco and Nortel Networks brought out appliances running on Linux, “that sort of thing starts telling you something’s happening, something’s starting to become more mainstream. So that’s when we started watching it”.

They were interested enough to run trials, in a couple of non-critical “reporting-type” areas and found that Linux was extraordinarily reliable, “certainly in the lower-middle-sized platforms, desktop environment, middle­range”.

“One of them [Webtrends, used to monitor website activity] has been up for 18 months without a reboot,” says Care. “So if you can keep systems up longer you don’t have to spend so much time administering them, those sorts of things start translating themselves into TCO.”

Interest accelerated further when IBM, Oracle, SAP “and a whole bunch of big-name companies” started moving decisively down the Linux path, investing heavily along the way (IBM put $US1 billion into its Linux commitment last year). As the airline’s key IT supplier, IBM kept the team up to date on developments and, says Care, “we kept an eye on what they and the rest of the market were doing”.

“So round about a year ago we started to get into what IBM was doing — how would they package it and therefore be prepared to stand behind it? We’ve got mission-critical systems and there’s no way we’re going to go near a platform with something that’s untested or not supported by a name supplier; we just don’t do those kind of things.”

After setting up a couple of pilots it soon became evident where Linux’s strength lay in terms of the airline’s IT goals. “We’re basically taking consolidation of platforms to another level — being able to consolidate a lot of NT boxes for instance — with significant cost savings and performance enhancers in there and, obviously, less complexity,” he says. An open-source world

If Care had any lingering doubts about Linux, they were dispelled when he paid a visit to the LinuxWorld conference in the US a few months ago. Among other things, he found American and European companies had been using Linux on mainstream systems — “platforms, applications, what you will” — for a number of years, “so it was quite reassuring to see that we were behind that first wave, knowing what other people had gone through. But considering the potential it has to be a disruptive technology, it’s actually gone quite smoothly. The kind of case studies that went up, the likes of Amazon and others out there, it’s amazing, for an IT technology, how easily and smoothly and relatively cost-effectively Linux went in”.

It was also reassuring, he says, to find that a company like Sun Micro­systems, with its vast commitment to Solaris and Sparc, was there and supporting Linux — even providing a keynote address — after having roundly slated it a few years before.

Care found, too, that the burgeoning open-source community itself was having a reassuring effect on the big players and helping to lure them away from proprietary operating systems. “Typically, those big companies might be able to scare up several hundred programmers for doing an operating system or a package,” he says. “Well, you’ve a quarter of a million or more out in the open-source world now and if they’ve got a problem they put it out into the community and typically it’s back in hours and it’s sorted. It seems even the IBMs of the world find it very difficult to compete with that sheer mass.”

And the open-source fraternity can only get bigger, he says, as universities turn out graduates for whom Linux is the philosophical and practical first choice: “A whole new generation that are all trained that way”.

“So if you take all that into account, that’s what starts making Linux worthwhile looking at. And the promise is obviously reducing cost.”

And ultimately, he says, as more providers become committed to the open-source principle and with a vast development community to draw upon, the cost of hardware and software

will fall.

“And it’s starting to happen; you’re starting to see consolidation of hardware providers as well as commoditisation going on. So there’s very strong pressure on the price of the hardware these days and it is being driven down. At the same time it’s getting more powerful, of course.

“And then on the software side, if your software vendors are going to do their application development in Linux — because the basic command sets are much the same as Solaris and other Unix flavours — then it becomes much cheaper for them to develop, and ultimately faster to bring their developments to the marketplace.”

Disruptive technology

Care likes to describe Linux as a “disruptive technology” — disruptive in the change management sense; in the way that, say, Henry Ford’s Model T mass production methods forever changed manufacturing. Or, more recently, in the way in which the introduction of the PC changed computing — and gave Microsoft a reason for being.

Ironically, Microsoft is now among those apparently under threat from an open-source world (and its commercial presence at LinuxWorld shows it’s not unaware of this fact). But Care doesn’t think Linux will be a problem for Microsoft, in the short-term at least.

“Microsoft has got a strong hold in the desktop world in particular. Some of the lower-end servers as well. So why would you change if you’ve got Office software that’s working really well? You can exchange your documents with a whole bunch of companies – why would you go to something else? From an IT perspective, you’ve got to be driven by what’s best practice in an environment. But down the track? Microsoft is obviously looking at it really closely. I would think they’ll change over time like everyone else.”

He says there are no plans at present to move Linux to the desktop, where software like Office and Project are doing a good job.

“Short- to medium-term, the only place I can see Linux on the desktop for us would be if we’ve got a single-task environment — where we just want a browser, for instance, and that’s all we need on that device, like a kiosk or whatever; that can even be a Linux client with a browser sitting on it,” he says.

“When you start needing to support the whole office environment or a bigger suite of applications — I can’t see that in the short- to medium-term. There’s a lot of integration stuff needed to make the applications work.”

Linux has also been kept away from mission-critical applications thus far, but the migration will continue slowly over time, says Care. “We very deliberately intend to test [Linux] in areas where the impact is least on the organisation but gives enough of a clue as to impact risk, cost reduction, performance improvement, those sorts of things. Hence, we’re doing it in the reporting areas and a bit of workload consolidation first. And that’ll change over time, because if you look offshore, at the likes of Amazon, for instance, their whole business runs on Linux now.” (And in the process has apparently cut technology costs by something like 25%, from $US71 million to $US54 million.) Linux ROI

Care can’t talk dollars and cents when it comes to the question of financial ROI from the Linux implementation. But he says industry indicators suggest that the consolidation “typically gets you from 15% to 30% reduction in operating costs, and we aren’t that much different”.

“Each time you can make a big change, a step change, obviously there’s more risk to it, but it’s a step change that typically gets you the bigger saving.”

Air New Zealand is among 10 big companies going down the Linux-on-mainframe route with IBM (others include Deutsche Telekom, 7-Eleven, The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the social services department of the Australian Government).

“We’re probably one of the larger ones in this part of the world looking at it for a number of different uses compared to other companies,” says Care, although he suspects other big users have been less forthcoming on the touchy subject of Linux implementation. “You’ve seen the likes of some of the banks come out of the woodwork lately as a result of us talking about it,” he says.

As for innovation, Care sees this demonstrated largely in a way that complexity is being taken out of IT processes. “And that’s actually more a business driver, which affects everything all the way back through into the IT world. The best example is what we’re doing with Express [no-frills] Class, for instance. That’s the innovation that’s driving back through and we, just like other parts of the business, have to innovate to be able to support those things.

“So it’s the airline as a whole being innovative as much as IT being innovative, if you like. At the end of the day, being a so-called IT professional, I would certainly love to be able to spend money and play with all sorts of things out there, but that’s not what I’m here for. I’m working for an airline business, so my job’s to support, enable … And one of our key drivers is taking complexity out and passing those changes on to the customer.”

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