Get ready: Here comes Linux. In design, Linux resembles UNIX more than Windows and offers a lot of performance capabilities—like multitasking and fault tolerance—at economies of scale more in line with PC systems. Linux is targeting the commercial printing and publishing environments.
BY MARIE RANOIA ALONSO
Linus Torvalds, a researcher at the University of Helsinki in Finland, has everything to do with why it seems so many people, in general, and desktop software and server technology providers, in particular, are talking about the new magic word for OS: Linux.
Linux is an operating system first developed by Torvalds in 1991 and, since then, enhanced and expanded by hundreds of programmers around the world. Although Torvalds and a select group of his closest associates standardized the kernel, or central component, of Linux, anybody with the programming skills and the patience can make a distinct version of Linux.
In design, Linux is more comparable to UNIX than to Windows, with similar commands for a multi-user environment. It is said that Linux is less likely to crash than is Windows and that Linux is a better multi-tasking, secure operating system. Of course, this can be weighed and disputed, given the application. What cannot be disputed, however, is the impact Linux is having on new technologies targeting the commercial printing environment.
Linux, in large part, is coming to the graphic arts industry from red-hot stock market movers and shakers like Red Hat, a commercial distributor of the fledgling, open-source operating system. Other Linux distribution comes from Caldera, Mandrake and Stormix Technologies.
Presently, technology innovators such as SGI are grabbing onto the promise of Linux—and bringing that promise to the publishing and commercial printing environments.
In addition to SGI's activities, recent Linux news includes increasing product talk—all with a DRUPA 2000 launchpad in sight—from other software, server and front-end technology providers. As Linux absorption continues, products and opinions will undoubtedly swell.
Here's a few perspectives—pro and con—regarding the new OS that owes its success to a researcher in Finland.
A New Linux Portfolio
SGI started 2000 with the announcement of several additions to its growing portfolio of Linux operating systems, including the introduction of a new SGI Internet server, SGI Advanced Clustering Environment and global Linux services. With these very Linux-geared additions to the SGI power suite of technologies, SGI marked the second year of its drive to help accelerate the commercial adoption of Linux, as well as establish a foundation for its Intel processor-based products.
The January announcements supported SGI's dual-platform strategy in which the company offered Intel and Linux, as well as MIPS and IRIX solutions, for visual and technical computing. SGI reported full support for six leading Linux distributions running on the Intel IA32 platform, including technologies from Red Hat, Turbo Linux, Suse, Mandrake, Debian and Caldera.
"At SGI, we're working on overlays that will run on top of Linux to allow the OS to take advantage of our hardware," reports Wayne Arvidson, global industry manager for SGI's digital media markets. "We're also taking components of our IRIX 64-bit system and making them available to the open-source community to facilitate development of 64 bit-based versions of Linux. IRIX is SGI's UNIX-based OS technology.
"We will continue to develop IRIX, partially due to a long-term commitment to the U.S. government for high-end systems," he continues. "IRIX will still be our highest-performance solution—we will then migrate certain IRIX features down to Linux and the rest of the open-source community. We've found that, for our IRIX developers, the port over to Linux is very straightforward."
Linux Splashes Servers
An integral component of Splash Technology's latest color servers, the T Series, is the Splash-Linux technology. Splash is looking to the Linux OS to provide several important advantages for the T Series, as well as for future products. "Linux is an advanced OS that is more stable then NT," states David Emmett, senior vice president of engineering at Splash.
"With a smaller footprint than other operating systems, it brings cost-effectiveness to products running on this system. In addition, the ability to tailor it to particular applications and platforms makes it particularly advantageous to print server development," Emmett reports. "It is scalable from the low end to the high end, by adding and removing components; therefore, it provides the basis for a wide range of solutions. Furthermore, since it is open-source software, it can be modified as necessary. Linux also allows us to leverage a qualified code base into multiple solutions."
Linux Not Compelling
Xinet CEO Scott Seebass reports that, as a spinoff of MT Xinu—the first company to develop commercial versions of Berkeley UNIX—Xinet has had a very long history with UNIX and emerging, UNIX-like operating systems.
"Linux is very similar to many of the operating systems that Xinet software already supports. And delivering our prepress products on Linux would be very easy for us, technically," Seebass states. However, at this point in time, he says that Xinet does not see any compelling reason for customers to choose to run machines on Linux instead of one of its existing, supported operating systems.
"Customers who want servers that run on Intel-based hardware because it is cheap and readily available, already have two choices: Solaris x86, which brings the most robust and scalable operating system available to Intel hardware at a very reasonable price, and Windows NT 2000, of which everyone is familiar," Seebass says. While a switch to Linux might lower customers' initial OS expense slightly, he notes that it also means abandoning the support of large, experienced OS development organizations that know how to build, test and deliver a stable, commercial-quality product.
Seebass does not believe that this is a reasonable tradeoff. However, he reports, "If, in the future, Linux becomes standardized and supported to the same extent as the other operating systems our software runs on, we will certainly provide products for the Linux platform."
Investing in Linux
DALiM Software has invested much of its recent product development activity on the Linux platform. The result is the introduction this month, at DRUPA 2000, of a Linux version of the company's flagship workflow software product, TWiST, and a new product family of easy-to-install workflow systems.
The various new Linux packages are said to be the result of years of experience in the design and development of software for workflow automation. Common to the new DALiM Linux workflow package is preflighting and normalization of incoming data. From there, customers will be able to select a Linux package that best meets the shop's individual requirements—automatic configurable trapping, automatic proofing or generation of a compatible output format.
Until recently, most of DALiM Software's customer base has consisted of larger companies that rely on TWiST workflow software to automate tedious, repetitive activities, allowing skilled prepress operators to concentrate on image manipulation and color correction.
"These companies have experienced important cost savings and increased productivity. However, smaller companies have recently expressed the same need for an affordable, yet powerful, tool to process prepress data securely and to automatically prepare data for final output," reports Carol Werle, software CEO at DALiM. "Many of these companies do not need the robust power of hefty Unix platforms, when Intel workstations running on Linux are just as suitable."
There is a definite trend in the IT world to make Linux the platform of choice for mission-critical applications, Werle contends. "It's why we decided to provide our cutting-edge products on Linux; the Linux operating platform solves many obstacles for customers: It empowers prepress shops, but also the entire publishing industry, printers and ad agencies, to run a powerful workflow package on less expensive, yet advanced and reliable, systems."
The Power of UNIX
Hybinette, a server supplier that exclusively manufactures products for printing and prepress operations, with more than 600 installs at customers including R.R. Donnelley & Sons, is presently focusing on Linux-based servers with the Intel and Alpha processor.
"We have developed a GUI that allows total server administration via an HTML interface. Installation of Linux is as simple as inserting a CD giving the IP addresses, and the CD will install automatically," reports Johan Hybinette, vice president of engineering, who contends that Linux is really becoming a player in the prepress and printing segments.
At DRUPA, Hybinette plans to release Onyx Network Cube—a self-contained server without monitor, keyboard and mouse, based on Red Hat Linux.
"We are also doing co-development with DALiM to release a complete printing workflow product based on our Linux servers to be released at DRUPA," he says.
"Linux has all the power of UNIX and you can get support for free. If you are a developer and post a question, you will get an answer the next day—try that with Sun," Hybinette claims.
Whether pro or con on the Linux topic, one question looms: As the commercial printing sector waits for product rollouts, what factors are contributing to the resistance of Linux's acceptance and adoption?
SGI's Arvidson takes a shot.
"The biggest pushback is stemming from the fact that Linux is an open-source application—it's an accountability issue. People fear that if they buy a peripheral or download a driver, those devices will not have been tested for compatibility with particular Linux systems," Arvidson states. "They're worried that they'll have a hard time getting support if something goes wrong."
For example, there's a very large printer looking at Linux now, but the company's biggest fear, as they consider the OS, is of unsupported peripherals. "We are committed to developing fully supported Linux solutions," Arvidson responds. "All the peripherals and software for our systems will be certified by SGI; we are supporting Linux to the same extent that we support IRIX."
The extent to which SGI and other server and desktop publishing companies will advocate Linux remains to be seen. What also remains to be seen is how exactly Linux will impact UNIX.
What doesn't remain to be seen, however, is that a new OS door has been opened. Linux is here and it does give UNIX competition.
A Shining Example:
Linux Illuminations From an Early Adopter
"I started messing around with Linux about two and a half years ago," recalls Jeff Walls, production manager for Mahaffeys' Quality Printing, a Jackson, MI-based commercial sheetfed offset and flexographic printer. "I had read an article [about Linux] in Wired magazine, and I thought the OS would be suitable to run an FTP server," he explains. "We had added a T-1 Internet connection in 1996 and were experimenting with Mac- and NT-based options, but were not happy with either."
At that time, Mahaffeys' had just migrated all of its servers from AppleShare to Windows NT. The company then experienced a period of rapid growth—and, according to Walls, quickly outgrew NT. "We suffered frequent crashes and restarts [running on NT] just as we had with AppleShare," he reveals.
Next, the printer planned to try UNIX on for size. Walls came up with the idea to use Linux as a dressmaker's dummy: to ensure a good fit. "Since Linux is similar to UNIX, we thought we could use Linux for internal training, then switch to UNIX later," Walls remarks.
Mahaffeys' never made the switch. The printer had such a positive experience with Linux that it decided to stick with the OS as its ultimate server solution. "Now everything in the plant is served with Linux," Walls enthuses. "By 1999, we had seven Linux servers—for print and file serving, OPI, FTP, Mail, DNS, Web, database and fax serving."
Leveraging Linux has resulted in "big dollar savings" for Mahaffeys', Walls says. "We get UNIX-like functionality for our departmental server without having to spend $50,000 to $60,000 for it," he asserts. "We spent a fraction of that using Linux.
"Plus, with the exception of our SMP 108GB OPI server, we're using borderline-obsolete Intel and Alpha hardware, which has saved us money," Walls adds. "Our 18GB FTP server was built from some used parts and a few new ones for about $300. The OS and FTP software cost us a grand total of 80 cents for a blank CD—and, actually, that cost is divided across multiple machines." He calculates that Mahaffeys' has saved $6,000 in OS licenses alone.
Walls characterizes Linux as a rock-solid workhorse of an OS.
Linux on the 'Net
SGI offers Linux University, which comprises seminars in key U.S. cities to help developers, executives and end users understand the OS. Info on SGI's Linux University can be found at www.sgi.com.
Linux Online! at www.linux.org is a great spot for Linux information, featuring up-to-the-minute details on Linux and its impact for the OS environment.
LinuxWorld trade show is another hot spot for Linux info, at www.linuxworldexpo.com.