InternetWorld: Open Source: Ready For Prime Time?

By David F. Carr, InternetWorld

The Linux/Apache combination has won many fans among Web
developers because it performs basic tasks well and also lends
itself to highly customized solutions. The big question is how well
the open source platform stacks up as a strategic choice for

Just how do you build a Web application in Linux? Well, if
you’re building SourceForge–one of the sites VA Linux runs under
the Linux.com umbrella–you do everything with open source
technologies: Apache Web server, PHP scripts, and MySQL as the

But it’s not just the ideologically committed who are betting
their businesses on open source Web technologies. Yahoo is among
the most famous users of Apache on FreeBSD, another open source
operating system. Hotmail continues to use the same combination,
even now that it’s owned by Microsoft. EToys runs its own
custom-built Web server on Linux, and Linux/Apache is a popular
choice for Web startups.

Linux, of course, is the Unix clone that namesake Linus Torvalds
created in the early 1990s, when he was a university student in
Finland, by marrying an Intel-compatible operating system kernel of
his own design with other open source system utilities,
particularly those from the Free Software Foundation’s Gnu project.
The Linux development community has since grown very large because
of its inclusive style of open source software development, whereas
FreeBSD-lovers tend to like that system’s more controlled
development model and closer adherence to Unix standards. In
practice, both operating systems run much of the same software.

Last year, Linux became the second most popular server operating
system, behind Windows NT, according to International Data Corp. It
surpassed Novell NetWare and all forms of Unix in number of units
shipped, and the actual proliferation of servers may be much
higher, because users can install the operating system on as many
machines as they like. Vendors like Red Hat and Caldera sell
convenience more than software, organizing the vast array of open
source resources onto a CD-ROM and sponsoring the development of
better user interfaces and administration utilities. Meanwhile, IBM
lends an aura of blue-chip respectability with commercial support
of both Apache and Linux, and its commitment to porting e-business
products to Linux. But even with the help of those vendors, this is
a “some assembly required” environment, particularly compared with
the all-inclusive platform offered by Microsoft.

The benefits of open source have to be weighed against the
relative immaturity of the middleware and database software
required for more complex applications. You may need to consider
the commercial alternatives for some of these components, or at
least hedge your bets so that you can make a change later if

A strategic choice?
A key question is
whether open source makes sense as a strategic choice today.
Windows 2000 solves many of the stability and availability problems
that drove Web businesses to defect to Linux over the past couple
of years. Meanwhile, other Unix vendors are sharply reducing, or
even eliminating, OS software licensing fees in reaction to the
Linux phenomenon. And even if you agree that open source is about
freedom and flexibility rather than cost, don’t expect the open
source world to match commercial offerings feature for feature.

“On the database side, if I wanted to run the biggest, meanest
database-driven site possible, I would run an Oracle database on
Solaris–but I still wouldn’t hesitate to put Linux boxes in front
of it,” says Drew Streib, one of the creators of SourceForge.
Still, he says sites like his own and Slashdot, a popular open
source message board, run just fine in an all-open-source

Commercial operating systems also tend to be capable of running
on some higher-end hardware than the open source alternatives,
particularly in terms of the number of processors per server.
However, Linux fans say they are often able to achieve their
scalability with many smaller servers, rather than a single large

One of the assumptions Gartner Group analysts make about the
future of e-business is that it will be dominated by whomever can
come up with the most complete technology stack, with elements for
success stretching from the hardware and operating system through
Internet servers, middleware, and packaged applications. Microsoft
doesn’t have all the pieces, but it tends to come out ahead,
because its server operating systems include many basic
elements–including Web server, middleware for handling
transactions and distributing processing, directory server, etc.
Open source technologies don’t even place in this competition,
according to Gartner, while IBM, Oracle, and Sun each present
different strengths.

“We’re looking at Linux as a volume commodity play in the
market, where you can cluster lots of servers in a rack
incrementally to provide performance,” says Gartner analyst George
Weiss. It’s good for anyone putting up a basic Internet server, and
is winning solid grass-roots support in that role, but it’s not yet
capable of supporting more centralized enterprise systems.

Tony Iams, an analyst with D.H. Brown, says he expects Microsoft
to regain much of the momentum it had lost to the Linux camp
because Windows 2000 provides a more complete environment for
building distributed applications. And he questions whether the
hacker mentality is a good match for the future of e-business. “The
attitude a lot of these people have is, ‘Give me a good Perl
interpreter and I’ll write you a distributed application.’ I think
that’s a little shortsighted.”

Despite all the heated Linux vs. Windows rhetoric, many
organizations never seriously debate which way to go. The choice
hinges as much on the skills and background of the development and
administration teams as on the strength of the underlying
platforms. Linux tends to attract those who can program and
administer a server much more efficiently from the command line
than by navigating through a series of graphical screens. Although
user-interface improvements are part of the Linux movement’s plan
for world domination, the open source tools for Web development and
administration are still nowhere near as graphical as the Windows
interface. And many Linux fans are more likely to duct-tape a Web
site together with Perl, improvising as they go, rather than
architecting around some grandiose object model.

More than one way
But these clichès don’t apply to everyone choosing Linux.
Some have plenty of experience with commercial technologies for the
Web, including Windows-based ones, and say they have discovered
purely pragmatic reasons for using open source technologies, but
not necessarily exclusively.

“Anybody who tries to tell you they have one answer for
everything is trying to sell you something,” says Victor Brillon, a
creator of the AnywhereYouGo.com Web community for developers of
mobile Web applications. He and Ryan Fife, who led development of
the site as a venture of Dallas-based People/Design / Technology
Inc., say they are happy with their choices of Red Hat Linux and
Enhydra, an open-source Java application server. But they plan to
migrate from MySQL to a commercial database, which may run on

“There are some cases where you just can’t beat Oracle on
Solaris, and there are also some cases where Oracle on Linux is a
very good fit,” Fife says. But after building other sites on
products like Vignette’s StoryServer and Art Technology Group’s
Dynamo, Fife finds an open source application server a refreshing

“One of the most frustrating things with the commercial products
is that often when a new version comes out, you’re required to
rewrite your applications,” Fife says. By using an open source
server, he figures he could, if necessary, take just the bug fixes
from a new release of Enhydra without accepting changes that might
disrupt his applications.

“It relies on you, the developer, going out and finding the
resources you need,” concedes Brillon. “Which means the learning
curve is a little higher than a traditional Microsoft

Certainly, Microsoft lays out a relatively clear technology road
map, recommending a single solution of its own for every layer of
Web application architecture, whereas the open source story is more
chaotic. But open source advocates think it’s okay to have many
different ways of solving the same problem.

“With Microsoft, if you want to do things any way other than
their way, you have to go through a process of system
dis-integration,” says Michael Tiemann, chief technology officer at
Red Hat.

A sufficiently knowledgeable Web development staff can create
highly customized and tightly tuned applications by configuring
Linux and Apache to load just the minimum set of services required
for a particular application. They can even modify core elements of
the system. As for providing a complete e-business software stack,
Tiemann says Red Hat can do that, too–through bundling agreements
with partners, such as IBM and Oracle, that provide commercial
database and application-server products on Linux.

Some of the biggest commercial vendors are also pouring
resources into open source development projects, particularly where
they are trying to drive the adoption of standards. For example,
Sun Microsystems and IBM are cooperating with the Apache community
on projects related to support for Java and XML, respectively.
Hewlett-Packard has signed on with Collab.Net, a company started by
Apache Software Foundation president Brian Behlendorf, to organize
open source development projects related to its E-Speak

Smaller companies are also supporting open source. For example,
the Enhydra application server is backed by a consulting firm,
Lutris Technologies, that offers implementation services but gives
away the software.

“I don’t think there is a missing piece, although we could do a
much better job of integrating all this stuff,” Behlendorf says.
“Some of these open source Web technologies rival application
servers that cost $20,000 to $30,000 per CPU.” True, open source
hasn’t solved high-end problems like producing a database server
capable of managing million-row tables, he says, “but those areas
aren’t price-sensitive.”

Just As Good?
So, are the open source technologies just as good? Not always.

For example, a benchmark report prepared by Mindcraft, a
software testing lab, showed Microsoft Internet Information Server
on Windows NT 4 outperforming and outscaling an Apache/Red Hat
Linux combination on identical hardware. IIS ran 2.2 times faster
on a four-processor system and 1.4 times faster on a one-processor
machine, according to Mindcraft.

Apache leaders dispute some details of the methodology, but they
don’t totally dismiss the results. Apache 2.0, which was released
as alpha code in March, will address some of the server’s current
weaknesses by leveraging the multiprocessing architectures of
different operating systems.

Similarly, though many Linux fans continue to ridicule Windows
NT Web servers for needing to be rebooted as often as once a day,
Behlendorf says Microsoft has taken away that argument with the
release of Windows 2000.

And he concedes that IIS enjoys a performance advantage because
of its tight integration with the multi-threaded architecture of
Windows. “Performance was never our number one goal. Our goals were
always protocol correctness and flexibility.” And, of course,
portability, which is something you don’t get with IIS. He also
argues that experienced Apache developers who know how to tune
their Web applications can overcome any handicap in terms of sheer

Marty Larsen, director of professional services at VA Linux,
says he always plays up the portability argument when trying to
convince customers to switch from Windows to Linux. “The fact is, a
Linux port will be 99 percent of the way there to a Solaris port,
in the event that they decide they need to do that,” Larsen says.
More than half of his business comes from companies making that
switch, he says.

“Linux is a great way to start,” advises Max Grasso, chief
technology officer at systems integration company NetNumina, “but
you need to keep on your toes to be able to move off of it.”

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