Up to its new devices
By Sarah Close (February 2003)
As enterprises gain confidence in the ability of Linux to power edge-of-network functions in the data center, the OS has found a new route into the enterprise: right through the front door
When the Linux® operating system (OS) burst onto the programming scene in 1991, it enabled any programmer with an inkling and an inspiration to tinker with code and mould new programs. In lieu of purchasing software from a corporation, programmers could simply download the free Linux OS. It was a programmer's dream toy and quickly developed an underground cult status, the likes of which Star Trek had never seen.
The transformation of Linux from cult figure to mainstream technology has happened largely over the last few years. The open, flexible nature of Linux brings money-saving benefits to enterprise data centers, and—although it may still be a little penguin in a big sea—the OS is gaining popularity at a staggering rate. In fact, Gartner, Inc. predicts that Linux will represent 9 percent of the overall server market in 20031 and that Linux server hardware revenue will more than double by 2007 to reach $9 billion. These statistics make Linux one of the fastest growing server operating systems in the world.2
Linux, best known for its flexibility, is commonly configured to work as a router, network host, workstation, file server, Web server, and cluster platform. But many newcomers to Linuxland don't realize that the grassroots OS also powers some of the most innovative electronics on the market. Today, more and more electronic device vendors are reaching out to business users with equipment such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) and Web phones that run an embedded version of Linux.
Today's tech-savvy society is in love with gadgets that help people manage their time more conveniently and effectively and make luxuries such as home entertainment more mobile. As the demand for these tools skyrockets, some experts predict that Linux may acquire its fair share of the business-targeted small-device market. After all, the benefits of Linux in the data center suggest that enterprises have a lot to gain from its strategic advantages, even when they come in bite-size equipment.
The beginning: Linux breaks the ice in the data center
As an open-source system, Linux must be freely accessible with modifiable source code. Many people focus solely on the concept of free distribution, believing that Linux is useful only because it requires no licensing fees. But Linux offers much more; the fact that it gives users an open window to its source code means that Linux functionality is essentially limitless. This type of programming freedom—coupled with the no-margin-for-error economy of the last few years—has attracted the attention of companies looking to cut costs in the data center.
Programming flexibility also has provided a critical jumping-off point for what some call the "real" benefits of Linux: interoperability, portability, and reliability. Because Linux is written to be inherently modular in the C programming language—a common, system-level language—Linux holds the potential to run on and with almost any platform. What's more, the Linux kernel promotes an extremely stable environment, operating continuously for months or years. The result is a system not subject to the limitations of proprietary manufacturers, but one that users can customize—sometimes piece by piece—to achieve high performance and efficiency.
Not surprisingly, these benefits can save companies big dollars. One online retail giant reported in a 2002 Securities and Exchange Commission quarterly filing that its recent UNIX® -to-Linux migration cut company technology expenses by 25 percent. By purchasing a commercial distribution of Linux from distributors such as Red Hat, enterprises can get more bang for their buck. They skip the licensing fees and runtime royalties and often reap the benefits of hardware vendor partnerships. For example, Dell and Red Hat provide Linux in conjunction with hardware, support, installation services, and software—features that have helped to increase Linux implementations by making the OS more enterprise friendly.
The evolution: Linux puts power in the palm of your hand
The ability of Linux to shrink size without stifling performance is propelling the OS into the realm of consumer electronics. Many products synonymous with market ingenuity—including TiVo® Digital Video Recorder and Sony® PlayStation® —leverage embedded Linux flexibility to enhance user interaction and control.
And developers find newer, hipper applications for Linux every day. One electronics company, for example, uses Linux to power a broadband audio system capable of storing digital CDs and playing personalized Internet radio through a home network connection. Another company uses embedded Linux in a cordless Web-enabled super-device that combines voice communication, Internet access, e-mail, voice mail, and an address book.
Linux-based devices aren't only for the home; in fact, this step in Linux evolution is happening largely because high-tech devices are becoming common business gear. As more and more business users demand devices such as PDAs and smart phones, developers are discovering that some proprietary systems are too cumbersome to fit the constraints of those smaller, embedded environments. Linux, on the other hand, is not so demanding of system resources. In fact, its kernel is small enough to fit on a single floppy disk.
Such flexibility is helping Linux progress in other new markets. Venture Development Corporation Senior Analyst Stephen Balacco says that a number of vertical markets other than consumer electronics—including automotive, information automation, industrial automation, and telecom/datacom—can all expect to see "high-growth embedded Linux applications" in the near future.
For years, Linux has powered several edge-of-network tasks in the data center. Now, via small devices, business users are carrying Linux into the enterprise right through the front door.
Personal digital assistants (PDAs)
Although most experts agree that Linux will not overthrow Symbian, Palm OS® , Microsoft® CE, or Microsoft Pocket PC—leading operating systems in the handheld space—supporters of the open-source system say Linux has earned enough credibility as a server platform to gain serious contender status in the world of handhelds. Linux also brings a full-size OS to the table, instead of the condensed proprietary systems available in other devices. The result: greater potential for running and interacting with critical, large-scale office applications.
A number of vendors have already launched Linux-based PDAs that offer the high processing and memory capacity required for enterprise applications. Many utilize full-colour screens and slide-out keyboards that eliminate the headache of writing in PDA-ese. Some Linux-based PDAs also give users remote access to corporate e-mail and data in addition to other wireless modules.
Wireless Web phones/pads
The wireless Web phone/pad (also known as an Internet appliance tablet) is another mechanism for remote Internet connectivity. Harnessing the convenience of a handheld and the power of a full computer, these devices put total communication functionality at the fingertips. Many Web phone/pad developers favor a lightweight embedded OS such as Linux over proprietary systems because it enables greater power in a smaller package—and at a more attractive price. These devices offer mobility that is especially useful in vertical markets such as health care, real estate, and hospitality, where accessibility to full-scale application power can immediately impact customer service and build competitive advantage.
Mobile customer service is also critical in retail enterprises, where the ability to conduct wireless transactions is often essential to daily business. Some developers now apply the compact reliability of Linux to portable point-of-sale devices. Linux now powers some palmtop touch-screen computers to process credit card payments, print receipts, scan barcodes, and check inventory.
Linux functionality is also emerging as a clear benefit in visual-intensive business tools. For example, some Web-enabled security cameras leverage embedded Linux to ensure system reliability in an area where few businesses can afford downtime. Additionally, Linux is working behind the scenes on some devices to enable wireless presentation projection.
The future: The little OS grows up
The success of Linux in the server market has proven to developers and users alike that Linux holds the potential to deliver tangible cost savings, enhanced flexibility, increased reliability, and superior performance. Now, as the market for embedded systems devices grows, Linux shows that it can also shine in resource-constrained environments. As more enterprises adopt and extend the Linux platform, embedded systems designers likely will broaden the scope of available tools and support, giving enterprises the confidence to take their use of Linux one step further.
The birth of an open system
Linus Torvalds didn't set out to create a tool for the enterprise. His initial efforts at developing an operating system 11 years ago were targeted at mimicking the utility of UNIX on his personal computer. Torvalds knew from his own frustration in working with closed environments that, from a computer science student's perspective, an operating system had to be accessible in order to be truly useful to its users. So he created his own open-source system with the help of a network of developers around the globe. The result was called "Linux," and now it is considered to be the most widely used UNIX-like operating system in the world.