Will Linux's low cost and open architecture be enough
to hold its competitive niche in the hosting market?
Anne Zieger correspondent | 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
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
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
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
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
"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 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
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
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
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
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,
"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
"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
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."
to find a Linux Web Hosting Provider