Enterprise Linux? Not so fast.

Some still find the business case dubious.

Migrating business applications from high-end Unix-based systems such as Sparc/Solaris to commodity x86/Linux platforms has been a popular idea for the past few years, but not everyone thinks going full-on with Linux is the best solution -- at least not yet.

Dan Blanchard, vice president of enterprise operations at Marriott International, is serious about Linux. He says his company's transition from high-end Unix-based systems from Hewlett-Packard and IBM is ongoing -- and inevitable. "We're migrating, and we have a strategy to continue deployment of Linux," he says.

Tony Iams hears that refrain from IT executives frequently. "Companies have had a long-term goal of consolidating all of their Unix systems onto Linux," says Iams, an analyst at research firm Ideas International Ltd. The companies want to consolidate on industry-standard technology across the board, he says, and that means Linux running on x86 hardware.

But Norm Fjeldheim, CIO at Qualcomm, decided to take a pass on a Solaris-to-Linux migration. The company does use Linux for some applications, but Fjeldheim's IT team concluded that migrating its industrial-grade Solaris systems to Linux was a dubious business proposition. "We're not moving from Sun to Linux. We haven't been able to make the economic case for it," he says.

While it appeared at first glance that Qualcomm would save money upfront on hardware and operating system costs by migrating, the price comparisons offered by vendors were based on retail prices. "We don't pay retail, [and] when we figured our discounts [with Sun Microsystems], the price advantages went away for Linux pretty fast," Fjeldheim says.

And that wasn't the only issue. His team wasn't satisfied with the quality of the administrative tools available for the Linux environment. At the time Qualcomm's IT staff did the assessment -- some 18 months ago -- the things that make an administrator's job easier "really didn't exist to the same degree in Linux as they did on Unix-based systems," Fjeldheim says. And that, he adds, would have translated into larger administrative costs.

As director of IT at Qualcomm, Matthew Clark was part of the team that reviewed the Linux option. The company's ratio of administrators to users is currently 500-to-1 (although he plans to lower that to about 450-to-1). "With Linux, it would have been 150- or 175-to-1. We would have had to hire three additional administrators for every administrator we have right now working on Unix," he says.

Iams isn't surprised to hear that assessment. "That's traditionally been one of Sun's strong points," he says. "They've optimized their systems for that metric."

Clark acknowledges that the administrative tools have improved since Qualcomm last reviewed its Linux options, but he still thinks Linux would be more costly. "If we started today with the new [tools] coming out, we might be in the neighborhood of two [admins] for every one," he says.

Although the numbers didn't add up for Linux as a Solaris replacement, Clark said he's impressed with Linux's overall capabilities and believes the operating system will continue to have a place at Qualcomm. "We like the performance, and we recognize that throwing a whole bunch of little boxes at things can work really well in certain applications," he says.

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Robert L. Mitchell

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