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Life in the Big Hairy

by Malcolm Dean
08/02/2001

Hmm.... the final day of this year's O'Reilly Open Source Convention. Off to the San Diego Zoo? Perhaps cocktails on the deck of the Coronado Hotel where Frank Baum wrote the Wizard of Oz? How about a bracing discussion of the challenges facing Linux in the enterprise? An obvious choice.

Red Hat CTO Michael Tiemann is clearly enthusiastic about the progress Linux and open-source software is making in the enterprise. "Enterprise CEOs are not afraid of open source," he told the audience of several hundred developers. "And the word 'free' is not important to them. It's the ability of the software to work reliably, and the ability to innovate with it."

To prove his point, Tiemann introduced enterprise technology leaders who are fully conversant with the open-source philosophy, and see it as key to their ongoing success.

PDI/DreamWorks' Ed Leonard brought the predictable slide of Shrek holding Tux in his hands -- a shot which was somehow dropped on the cutting room floor (a virtual floor, these days). Shrek is important to Linux, said Leonard, because computerized feature animation pushes all kinds of limits. The PDI team uses many standard tools such as Perl, the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC), and the emacs text editor. But much of the work is done with closely held proprietary tools on Linux rendering farms.

For many years, this was the realm of Silicon Graphics workstations and mid-range servers. But as Intel's offerings steadily approached the same level of performance, it became clear that a shift to Intel platforms would be necessary. A disruption needed to occur in the artistic process, one which could only be justified by gains in performance, scalability, and cost.

PDI is now fully committed to Linux, and a survey conducted at an industry summit in June revealed that this segment of the entertainment industry will be overwhelmingly on Linux by late 2002. Some graphics companies have been waiting for 64-bit Linux, while others have established relationships that prevent them from considering the move.

W. Phillip Moore, a principal with the Enterprise Application Infrastructure group in the Information Technology department of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., said many enterprise challenges are common to all organizations. He called for better auditing and change-control tools, and is developing capacity-planning tools to help cope with the company's growth.

Tiemann observed that while proprietary software has an infinite cost (upgrades, support) and infinite bugs, it has limited support. In contrast, open-source software has finite bugs and infinite possibilities.

While Hewlett-Packard received a special nod from the panel as a major vendor that understands how to fold open-source development back into its products, it was clear from the debate that a new community of software developers is now joining the open-source movement. As more CIOs and internal development teams work with open-source software, we'll see enterprises working together to solve common enterprise-level problems that may not be addressed by solution vendors. XML standards have already had this effect, bringing together many organizations for the first time. Soon, a new generation of business tools, utilities, and operating system enhancements will emerge from within enterprise IT departments. Tools designed by and for enterprises.

Big, hairy solutions for big, hairy problems.

Malcolm Dean is a broadcast journalist, technology writer and IT consultant based in Los Angeles.


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