When Linux trumps Unix and vice versa

For many IT organizations, migrating to Linux from Unix can be beneficial. In this tip, an expert opines on when it's worth it and when it isn't.

According to recent studies, two thirds or more of IT organizations are considering a migration to Linux. But obviously any migration is no trivial matter. If your organization is thinking about migrating to Linux, plan to take a hard look at the realities before you get too far into the process.

More on Unix to Linux migrations:
Unix to Linux: Migration steps and porting 

Unix-to-Linux migrations: Guidelines, distro choices and hardware optimization

In some contexts, migration can make a lot of sense and save money. In others, migration may be a bumpy or expensive road that requires caution or rethinking. In this tip, we'll look at when migration is wise and when it is not.

When is migration a good idea?

When you consider migrating to Linux from Unix, start by looking at your application software needs and expenses. Determine if you can port your existing software or if you can obtain the software that is vital to your organization. If you use open source software that is not heavily customized, the transition to Linux can be relatively seamless and cost effective.

If your software is proprietary or heavily customized, expect to encounter unanticipated problems when you port the software. For example, if an application is written to use shared memory segments, starting addresses for the memory segments may differ in a system running Unix as compared to one running Linux.

Tracking down the source of a specific problem may take your migration team several extra days or weeks. Even with these problems, though, a migration can be cost effective if you have Linux-trained staff on hand who know how to quickly find solutions.

Using a migration strategy to move from an expensive Unix proprietary software system to an open source system can save your organization a lot of money. For example, an organization using older Sun Solaris systems and StarOffice might save money by migrating to a free Linux distribution and adopting the OpenOffice.org office suite.

Aging Unix systems could be another reason to migrate. If the systems have to be migrated anyway, that's the perfect time to consider platform changes.

When is migration unwise?

Let's say your organization's systems programmers want to migrate to Linux because they like it. The applications programmers don't want to migrate because your application software systems are extensively customized for the present Unix operating system — and there is no money allocated to purchase new applications. Also, there is no open source software to take the place of your present applications.

This is a red flag that migrating your systems is likely to be painful and it may be time to put on the brakes. One university I worked with, which had several thousand employees, encountered this situation with its payroll system. The payroll system contained thousands of lines of highly customized code. Migration would have been too enormous and expensive, so the university had to wait on the project until it had funding for a new payroll system as well as for new hardware.

If your organization has no Linux system professionals on staff, starting a migration can be risky. When you run into problems, which is common for any migration, it will take longer to solve them if there is no one experienced with Linux.

In a study by the Yankee Group, 80 percent of corporate IT users had no plans to retrain their computer professionals in preparation for Unix to Linux migrations. The Yankee Group study called this "dangerous" to a smooth transition. You are likely to save time and money (and solve post-migration problems faster without wasting your users' time) if you hire a Linux consultant until you have trained your staff.

For many organizations, migrating to Linux from Unix can be worthwhile. The key is to examine the issues and make the right preparations before jumping in.

Which do you plan on sticking with, Linux or Unix? Let us know what's going on in your data center.

This was first published in November 2006
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