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Using Linux to Tame the Big Hairy Beast

by Chuck Toporek

This morning's keynote presentation was titled "Fueling the Open Source Alternative," but I found that title to be a little vague. To me, the focus of the discussion was more on how large companies are using Linux as a solution to their distinct business needs.

In reality, the keynote, lead by Michael Tiemann from Red Hat Software, was more of a panel presentation/discussion. I'll admit it, normally, I'm not too enthused by keynote presentations. But I found this one intriguing because it showed how Linux and Open Source are moving more into mainstream business as a solution, rather than as something that businesses are just wanting to try out.

The idea for the keynote came about because Dale Dougherty and Tim O'Reilly heard that Michael Tiemann was going around to meet with the CIOs and CTOs of various companies to try and learn about how and why they were using open source software to build unique systems for their needs. What he learned was that they weren't as concerned with cost savings as they were with trying to provide the right solution to the problems they encountered on a daily basis with their businesses.

Three of the people that Michael met with gave short presentations on how they're using Linux and Open Source in their businesses. First up was Ed Leonard, head of technology for DreamWorks Animation .

Linux @ DreamWorks Animation

What's new is how they're using things like Perl and GCC as the key foundation for feature film production. These tools were on the periphery of what they were doing in producing films. After all, they're a niche market; an innovation market. They try to embrace as much technology as possible to make great films.

Shrek, which was produced at PDI/DreamWorks, really pushed the limits of computer animation. The technologies they used were SGI Octane and O2 systems on the desktop, and Visual Effects Society where they discussed the use of Linux in creating visual effects. The Summits addressed the needs and concerns of the VE industry. At the second Summit, there was an amazing transformation, with people wanting to work better together and sharing their Linux strategies; according to Ed, it was a very dynamic and open exchange.

Linux-based rendering farms are on the rise, and in a survey at the VES Summit, nearly three-quarters of the animation companies had plans to integrate Linux and open source software into their business by 2002. Because of the way the film industry works, moving to open source software is of great interest to technology managers. Some of the challenges they discussed and discovered at the VES Summit included:

  • Change management: Not so much that they needed to get rid of their managers, but that they needed to get their managers to change their way of thinking about the technology needed to more efficiently create the films they're producing.

  • Support model: The need for both internal and external support.

  • 2D/3D graphics features: If you used the features in Quake, they're fine and they run fine, but if you're using more advanced GL functions, you need to explore more of its functions.

  • Technology roadmap visibility: Look at what's out there and see how they can implement it in a way that fits their needs.

  • Enterprise interoperability: One thing they're looking for is an Outlook client on Linux. This would be really helpful so they can co-exist with people working on other platforms. (My suggestion: Take a look at Evolution. It's not there yet, but it could offer what you need.)

  • Adoption within our niche market: Trying to pursuade others of the benefits of running Linux and open source software vs. other proprietary systems. Part of the challenge here is that most of the people in the movie industry have a lot of money invested in proprietary hardware and software, so making the move is a monumental shift in thinking.

  • Give back: Contribute what they've learned with others in their community, as well as with others in the open source community.

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