Who's Afraid of Linux? (Part 2)

Despite the hesitancy of Oracle and other ERP vendors, more IT managers are examining Linux as a platform for their business applications because of huge potential savings. A few key lessons for brave early adopters.
While Germany-based software company SAP is eager to trumpet its support for running business applications on Linux operating system (see Part 1), the other big player in the enterprise resource planning market, Oracle Corp., of Silicon Valley, seems more ambivalent about the open source movement.

SAP released its first Linux version of its primary ERP software, R/3, as far back as late 1999. This February, in contrast, Oracle chief Larry Ellison cautioned users at Oracle's AppsWorld conference not to try to run Oracle's 11i application suite on Linux.

That was "an unfortunate statement," says Steve Westmoreland, chief information officer of Linux hardware vendor VA Linux. Westmoreland was scheduled to speak the next day about how his company has been successfully running nearly the full suite of Oracle's 11i applications on Linux since last October. "After hearing that, I was a little concerned whether anyone would show up," he recalls.

About 25 or 30 people did come to Westmoreland's presentation, but the incident is a clear indicator of Oracle's ambivalence about Linux.

It's not that Oracle is opposed to open source in general: Oracle's new 9I application server, for example, is based on the open source Apache Web. Plenty of users run Oracle's database on Linux, and the software maker chose Linux as the platform server to demonstrate the latest version of Oracle's database software, 9I, at its official unveiling on June 14. And in the same speech in which he advised users not to run Oracle applications on Linux, Ellison declared, "I'm a huge supporter of open source."

Lessons Learned

1) A growing number of companies are using Linux for enterprise-wide applications -- but so far, most are writing them in-house, rather than using packages from Oracle, SAP, or other vendors.

2) As with any unfamiliar operating system, it pays to have expertise with Linux in-house before attempting to host your ERP applications on Linux systems.

3) Shifting your ERP applications onto less expensive Intel-based hardware running Linux could cut your hardware costs by two-thirds.

But -- perhaps because of Oracle's tight relationship with Sun Microsystems, which sees Linux as a competitor to its Solaris version of Unix -- that endorsement does not seem to extend to Linux as a platform for Oracle applications.

"Oracle did not support it one iota," says Jeffrey Sofferin, CIO of Aviation Systems International Inc., in Boca Raton, Fla., a $40 million aviation parts distributor which tried -- and failed -- to run Oracle 11i on Linux a few months ago.

When ASI received its copy of 11i for Linux, says Sofferin, Oracle had included disks for NT in the package. "If they're serious about Linux, they have a funny way of showing it," he says.

ASI, which uses Linux for its mail and Web servers and firewall systems, has given up on Oracle's applications altogether, and is now looking at other ERP products, some of which run only on NT.

A deal killer?
Oracle's ambivalence towards Linux hasn't completely stopped users from adopting it for Oracle applications, but it is making them hesitate. For instance, BOSS Corp., a Duluth, Ga., systems integrator, was working with a $100 million manufacturing firm which was eager to run Oracle 11i on Linux, according to Bill Dunham, BOSS's ERP practice director. The client was already using Linux for firewalls and proxy servers, and estimated that running Oracle applications on Linux would be three times less expensive than running it on Unix systems from vendors like H-P, IBM, or Sun.

Ellison's warning at AppsWorld made the firm reconsider its plan. But in the end it decided to proceed, and the project is now up and running in a test environment. The installation has been trouble-free, according to Dunham, and the project is actually ahead of schedule. One key to its success, in the executive's opinion: both BOSS and the client already had IT employees with Linux experience in-house.

Dunham says other BOSS Corp. clients are beginning to express interest in running Oracle applications on Linux. The main driver: potential cost savings."We have several Oracle clients that are looking at spending a half million or a million dollars on new hardware," he says. "To them, this configuration looks pretty attractive."

To Dunham, that makes a lot of sense, especially since the first installation went so smoothly. "We don't see any difference," he says, "between implementing Oracle on Linux and implementing it on IBM AIX or HP-UX or Sun Solaris."

Especially for companies with employees used to navigating in the Linux universe, savings of that magnitude will cause many IT managers to give open source platforms a long, searching look.

Dan Orzech is a Philadelphia-based writer specializing in technology. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and many computer industry publications.

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