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Linux Bytes Other Markets: City of Garden Grove Adopts Linux

by Drew Robb

Free Linux Download Snowballs into Citywide Government Deployment.

Five years ago, the IT department in the City of Garden Grove, California faced significant budgetary constraints. Rather than continue to pay for proprietary software, Charles Kalil, acting information systems manager for the city, decided to check out Linux. He downloaded it for free, installed it and liked what he saw.

Five years later, Linux is running on six servers and 386 PCs. It serves everyone from the public works department to the fire department, and they couldn't be happier with the results. “Our citywide Linux network has operated continuously for over a year without crashing,” said Kalil.

As an experienced NT system manager, he believes that it is possible to achieve similar performance from NT. But that means limiting each NT box to only one type of service. “Linux can stably handle file/print serving, mail server and more on one machine,” said Kalil. “NT can't.”

When the city began experimenting with Linux, it was originally looking at buying an NT network. But that meant purchasing multiple servers, licensing agreements and added software costs. “Linux came as a free download that also included a Web server, mail server, Samba file, and print sharing, and Network Files System (NFS) capabilities,” said Kalil. “With the alternatives such as SCO and NT, these were either not included or you had to purchase them separately.”

It wasn't all clear sailing for Garden Grove, however. Running Linux in 1995 was much more adventurous than today due to lack of support and a shortage of applications. Despite that, the city set up a Linux database that has been running ever since.

From a cost standpoint, the difference was substantial. Garden Grove replaced a $400,000 Data General minicomputer with two Pentium 90 servers that cost $5,000 combined.

Kalil also found that certain applications could not be ported to Linux. “We still use NT for imaging software on our optical jukebox,” he said. The City of Garden Grove also maintains a GIS server running NT. Once again, the GIS software does not have a Linux port.

But as far as price, reliability and availability are concerned, the city is fully committed to being a Linux-based shop. “We found that we didn't need high-price servers due to the efficiency of the Linux kernel,” said Kalil. “Further, we can obtain the same results as NT with about half the memory.” [See LJ Issue 35 for a previous article on Linux and the city of Garden Grove—Editor]

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology issues.


There has always been a strange relationship between Cobalt's primary business model and its most obvious product: the self-branding Qube. Every time I spoke with him, Stephen DeWitt made it clear that his company's business was selling rackmounted servers—its RaQ brand, especially—to ISPs who, in turn, would sell box-resident, value-added services to their customers. In fact, Cobalt has developed a large number of third parties whose applications could be packaged with Cobalt RaQs and sold to ISPs.

The Qube was a great little product, easily put to use anywhere one could find a constant Net connection and an available IP address, basically for SOHO settings. It was an easy product to love—a bright blue cube with a wide greenish light in the front. But the server appliance market was yet another one of those zero-billion dollar categories that would get around to delivering their promise when broadband was less the exception than the rule. As Qube observer Luke Tymowski puts it, “There's more money to be made selling RaQs to ISPs than Qubes to you and me.”

But when Cobalt sold itself to Sun Microsystems a few days ago (I write this on September 30, 2000), the Qube and the Appliance Category seemed to be the whole story.

The San Jose Mercury News told a typical story. Under the headline “Sun to Buy Cobalt for $2 Billion” ran the subhead “Deal gives company market for low-cost server appliances”. In the first sentence, Cobalt was identified as “the maker of a compact server-in-a-box”. The obvious manifestation of that label is the Qube, but the practical one is the RaQ. And Cobalt has done a remarkable job of productizing RaQs as appliances—as plug-and-serve devices. Its on-line literature says, “Now in its third generation, the Cobalt RaQ is a mature, proven server appliance already in use in 1/3 of all the Tier 2 and Tier 3 service providers around the world. In fact, Cobalt RaQ is the server of choice globally because the Linux-based system does not require the constant attention of very expensive IT engineers.”

Cobalt has had very good marketing instincts from the beginning, playing the Linux label much the same way as it played the appliance label. The question now is whether Sun will tamper with that success. Sun has always gone out of its way to say it “supports” Linux but remains anything but a “Linux company”. Now with Cobalt it has bought one of the most familiar Linux companies in the world.

However, Cobalt, unlike VA Linux and other Linux hardware companies, has been a Linux company only to the extent that it employed Linux as a small, handy commodity OS. It also used a small, handy commodity microprocessor. Any idea what it is? Hint: it's not Intel or Motorola. There's marketing at work for you.

Among all the literature provided to me by Cobalt during the Spring Linux World Expo in 1999, the only mention of Linux was in 6-point type on the back of the company's data sheets. But, Cobalt quickly welcomed identification as a “Linux Company” and surely benefitted from that association with a big IPO in the fall of 1999. Around that time, “appliance” was becoming a hot term. Cobalt soon wisely identified nearly all its products as “server appliances”. Looks like it paid off.

Once Cobalt is part of Sun, there won't be much semantic leverage left in the word Linux, simply because of Sun's antipathy to the commodity OS. And sure enough, Sun is already reportedly thinking about dumping Linux from Cobalt servers and replacing it with Sun's own appliance-specific version of its operating system, Solaris. One wonders if they'll also insist on SPARC processors. But Luke Tymnowski says the fact that “they are making noises about moving the RaQs over to Solaris from Linux doesn't mean much. It wasn't the OS that was remarkable, it was the web administration interface.”

Indeed. It's hard to imagine a simpler UI for a server than the one Cobalt designed for it's appliances. Let's hope for their sake that they keep it that way.