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With Linux making deeper inroads into corporate data centres, the recent LinuxWorld Conference & Expo in San Francisco gave attendees some first-hand information about how open source is maturing to handle more critical business workloads.

"The question of whether to use Linux isn't an issue any more," says Eric Clapsaddle, Unix systems administrator at Kohl's department stores, who made his first trip to the conference this year. "It's not, 'Can I do it on Linux?' It's: 'How do I do it on Linux?'"

Addressing that question, the show -- which organisers say drew some 11,000 people, about the same as last year -- was focused on how Linux can support real business tasks. The bulk of the sessions and keynotes dealt with higher-level technologies such as virtualisation, management, security, services-oriented architectures and grid computing, rather than lower-level discussions about the merits and drawbacks of Linux itself.

Meanwhile there were product announcements from a range of companies. FiveRuns and Open Country unveiled open source systems management products; open source collaboration vendors Zimbra and Scalix showed off updated wares; and open source storage companies Zmanda and Cleversafe launched software and an open source project.

Systems vendors such as HP, IBM and Oracle also had news. HP expanded its Linux repertoire, announcing formal support for Debian, while IBM and Oracle talked about widening their support for Linux and open source with services and preconfigured packages.

But the real thrust of the show was around helping IT managers make better use of Linux and open source by integrating it into heterogeneous data centre environments wherever it makes the best business sense.

"From now on it's really all about mainstreaming," says Michael Dortch, principal business analyst and IT infrastructure management practice leader at the Robert Frances Group. "It's not about open source vs. proprietary. It's all part of a company's business infrastructure. So enterprises need to work with vendors who understand that and ask the question, 'How do I make my business run better?'"

In order to answer that question, organisations also need to look at other companies to see how Linux and open source deployments have fared in action. In that vein, the event featured real-world case studies and a first-of-its-kind CIO Summit, designed to give CIOs the opportunity to hear from their peers about the benefits and challenges of using open source software.

Guru Vasudeva, associate vice president and chief architect at Nationwide, a $21 billion insurance and financial services company with more than 30,000 employees, appeared on the Summit panel and also gave a keynote describing his company's use of Linux and virtualisation to run nearly a dozen important business applications.

"I'm standing here from a large insurance company talking about using Linux and open source software for our mission-critical applications," Vasudeva said, during the keynote. "That's a testament that Linux is no longer on the fringes. It's really mainstream."

Part of what's pushing Linux into the mainstream is advancement of the x86 platform, typically used to host Linux and open source applications, analysts say. While once looked upon as thin, expendable systems, x86 servers now have multi-core processors and virtualisation technology built into their hardware, making them more capable of supporting critical enterprise applications.

As a result, many enterprises are looking at moving applications off of expensive, symmetric multi-processing systems running proprietary operating systems and onto less expensive x86 servers running Linux.

"So the discussion has really shifted to where now the question is, how are we going to operate in this new environment, what new features are needed on Linux?" says Jean Bozman, research vice president, enterprise computing group, at IDC. "Deployment, security and management are more of a focus at this show than they have been in the past."

Virtualisation, common on Unix and mainframe systems, is also getting more attention. Shawn Badger, Linux administrator at CSK Auto, a car parts retailer, says he came to the show to look for tools to manage virtualised Linux environments. The idea is to increase the efficiency of the company's servers, many of which are underutilised today, he says.

Underutilised resources are also what prompted Nationwide to look at Linux, Vasudeva said. The company wanted to roll out new applications but already had about 5,000 servers running at an average utilisation rate of only 10 per cent to 15 per cent.

"We had too many servers under management . . . and it took weeks to months to provision them," he said. In addition, with its scale-out architecture the company was faced with spending tens of millions of dollars to build out more data centre space to support the new software.

"As we looked around [for alternatives] we found that virtualisation and Linux was a very powerful combination," Vasudeva said.

Last fall, Nationwide went live running applications on Linux in virtual partitions on a mainframe. As a result, Vasudeva said the company expects to save some $15 million over the next three years because of increased systems administrator efficiency (one administrator can now handle 100 servers, compared with 30 previously), reduced data centre space demands and more efficient use of its servers, which now average about 70 per cent utilisation.