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Will Linux's low cost and open architecture be enough to hold its competitive niche in the hosting market?

Anne Zieger correspondent | HostingTech.com | azieger@hostingtech.com

Only a few years ago, Linux was the ultimate hacker toy: free, stable, and flexible enough for bleeding-edge programmers, but far too much of a renegade for the corporate boardroom. With Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) operating systems dominating the hosting business and corporate datacenters, few techies got to work with Linux during the day, although many were spunky advocates for Linux use on their own time.

By the late 1990s, a growing number of system administrators boasted bumper stickers with clubby pro-Linux slogans or wore the iconic Linux penguin on t-shirts, and technology journals quietly began to publish articles looking at the benefits offered by this trendy OS (Operating System). Techies began loading Linux systems on obscure file and print servers, usually without asking permission.

Today, after years of persistent lobbying by system administrators, corporate maneuvering, and major investments by computing industry standard-setters, Linux is becoming an accepted operating system for corporate deployments. Sure, many companies are still in Windows-or-die mode, but many more cashed-starved players are hungry for the potential cost savings Linux offers.

As that happens, hosting providers are finding new ways to deploy this once-renegade operating system, most notably as the underpinning for a new generation of "vital" hosting services offering dedicated server-like options at shared server prices.

Other than a few hard-core Linux fanatics indulging in wishful thinking, no one expects Windows to disappear as an OS for hosting; however, Linux has become mainstream enough to be offered in the portfolio of most hosting providers. From renegade technology to a contender in only a few years ... Linux has come a long way.

"It used to be just for the network guy that happened to need a DNS server," says Paul Robertson, director of risk assessment for security firm TruSecure (www.trusecure.com), which researches corporate OS usage. "Now people are doing projects that are on the books and funded."

Corporate acceptance
Corporate I.T. departments did not get interested in Linux until late 1999, as companies like Red Hat (www.redhat.com) and VA Linux (www.vasoftware.com) began to make a splash. At the time, the technology research firm Aberdeen Group (www.aberdeen.com) predicted 40 percent of enterprises would give Linux a try in 2000, mostly for print and file servers, or perhaps firewall implementation.

Around the same time, a handful of Web hosting companies began bringing Linux in-house. Rackspace Managed Hosting (www.rackspace.com), which got its start in early 1999, was especially Linux-friendly. The company, which targets small to midsize enterprises, began as a 100-percent Linux-based hosting service.

"We started focusing exclusively on Linux because I and two of the other founders were all Linux guys," says Dirk Elmendorf, chief technology evangelist for Rackspace. "But as we grew up, we realized that not only are we good at it, but also, for small and medium enterprises, it's easy to get into, low cost, and has a lot of technology built on it."

Over time, Linux has evolved into a solution popular not only with technology insiders like the Rackspace crew, but also corporate I.T. departments. This year, about three-quarters of businesses are working with Linux in some form, Aberdeen estimates. Although many are sticking with the file- or print-serving mode, more than a few are mounting major development projects on the Linux platform.

Moving to Linux is much easier, as most major software vendors - with the obvious exception of Microsoft - add Linux support for their key products and development tools. Developers hoping to base applications on Linux now have an increasingly robust list of options. Oracle (www.oracle.com) has transported its Oracle9i Database, Oracle9i Application Server, Oracle9i JDeveloper Java 2 Enterprise Edition, and XML (eXtensible Markup Language) development environments to Linux. BEA Systems' WebLogic application server (www.bea.com) and Sun Microsystems' iPlanet (www.sun.com) also ship versions running on at least one Linux platform.

Things have also picked up briskly for Linux on the server. Among its notable supporters is IBM (www.ibm.com), which has brought high-powered Linux capabilities to its zSeries 800 mainframe last year. More recently, Sun Microsystems launched a family of low-end, multipurpose x86 Linux systems, and expanded its line of Sun Cobalt Linux appliances. The Texas computing powerhouses, Dell Computer Corporation (www.dell.com) and Compaq (www.compaq.com), for their part, have been shipping Linux servers for some time.

Hosting goes virtual
This trend of acceptance by major hardware players has certainly helped nudge service providers, large and small, toward Linux hosting solutions. In January 2001, for example, IBM Global Services (www.ibm.com) announced it would spend $330 million over three years to deploy a range of Linux services, including Linux-based e-business solutions, open-source education, and Web/high-availability cluster design.

Another substantial hosting provider, NTT/Verio (www.verio.com), offers seven standard hosting packages running over Red Hat Linux, bundled with the Apache Web server. Some of the giants, like WorldCom (www.worldcom.com), remain holdouts, but nobody expects that to last (WorldCom might not survive long enough to make a decision).

Smaller hosting companies are also buying into Linux. Typical is the deal recently announced by Hewlett-Packard/Compaq, under which it would bring Linux to RackShack (www.rackspace.com), a subsidiary of consumer DSL provider Everyones Internet. Under the terms of the deal, Compaq will equip RackShack's datacenters with 1,000 ProLiant DL320 servers. Everyones Internet also plans to purchase an additional 8,000 to 10,000 servers over the next two to three years.

Hosting providers, particularly those with existing Linux- or Unix-friendly system administrators, are picking up Linux partly as a means of dishing out affordable standard hosting packages. After all, a company whose administrators understand Unix can adapt to Linux systems without too much trouble.

Linux is proving to have other handy benefits as well. It has increasingly stood out as a tool for offering virtual dedicated hosting at shared-hosting prices. When configured properly, multiprocessor Web systems can run multiple instances of the Linux kernel, offering users the look and feel of a dedicated server system at a far lower price.

A handful of Linux community projects, including the User-mode Linux Kernel effort (user-mode-linux.sourceforge.net), are working to make it safe and secure to offer customers their own Linux virtual machine. Meanwhile, blade servers rolling out from upstart companies like Egenera (www.egenera.com) and Jareva (www.jareva.com) - not to mention hardware vendors like Dell - make running multiple instances of the Linux kernel look easier and cheaper than before.

At least one hosting provider is building its entire business around virtual hosting services over Linux. Startup hosting provider Usonyx (www.usonyx.com) is specializing in offering Linux-based "virtual private servers" to its clients, using SWsoft's Virtuozzo (www.sw-soft.com) technology to manage the service.

Usonyx General Manager Carlos Flores says virtual hosting is 75 percent cheaper to provide than standard hosting, mainly due to reduced hardware infrastructure costs. He plans to pass those savings along to customers. The firm, which launched in January, is currently offering its entry-level virtual private server product at $34.99, but plans to drop that price to a shared-hosting-like $9.99 per month shortly.

"What I'm predicting, seeing the cost savings I've already experienced and projecting, is that I'm going to have the opportunity to wipe out shared hosting as an option," Flores says.

It could be a while before the bulk of the hosting industry follows Usonyx's lead. Although clustering and other virtual server technologies are intriguing, they are not yet mature enough to win over most hosting execs, says the Aberdeen Group's Bill Claybrook, research director for Linux, Open Source Software, and Unix.

"Hosting providers are looking for something that works in a production environment," Claybrook says. "Even with a new solution that looks good, you're going to want to test it out."

The right reasons
Most buyers now understand Linux better than they did, and that bodes well for Linux's future as a mainstream OS. These days, when companies finally do choose to host an application or website on Linux, they are doing it for more of the "right" reasons - for its technical strengths rather than its high profile - and appreciate hosting providers that can help them get practical work done.

"A lot of companies in the Linux market got a lot of press and then faded into oblivion," Elmendorf says. "Linux was part of all of the [tech boom] hype, but now it's not a buzzword-laden technology any more. Either it works or you don't use it."

Linux-happy, cost-conscious Rackspace now supports a handful of other operating systems, including FreeBSD, Windows 2000 and NT, and Sun Solaris, although Linux hosting still accounts for about 60 percent of its business.

"Some customers have a mix of Linux and Sun servers, or Linux and Windows," Elmendorf notes. "By adding other capabilities, we can help people get the best of whatever world fits their needs."

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