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.”
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.)
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.”