A New Frontier: Extending Mass-Customized to the Operating System

Mass customization is commonplace in the manufacturing of everything from cars to laptops, but not in the software industry. But software vendors and IT departments are beginning to recognize the need to tailor the operating system to specific-use cases, improving the user experience, driving down support costs and enhancing security. Knowledge Center contributor Matthew Richards explains the driving forces behind mass customization of the operating system, the obstacles to Linux customization, and the path toward a more-efficient, higher-performing operating system environment.


My wife recently took the plunge and bought a new car. She spent time mulling the options online, and then chose the color and features she liked best. A few weeks later, when she drove out of the dealer's lot, she felt as if she was leaving with a car made just for her. That's exactly what the manufacturer intended.

Manufacturers of all kinds leverage advanced production capabilities to better serve individual customers. They're mass-producing products with a variety of options to appeal to different people. The user gets exactly what they want (as long as it falls within the manufacturer's range of options), and the manufacturer gains economies of scale by leveraging standard components. In this way, manufacturers are able to produce and support offerings-tailored to individual needs-at a lower price point.

This practice of "mass customization" is used to build all kinds of products, from cell phones to laptops to furniture. Mass-customization of hardware is commonplace. Mobile computing, thin client, virtual machines and cloud computing are just a few examples. Oddly, however, mass customization is woefully lacking in today's operating systems.

Operating systems remain bulky, overgrown packages that sap IT resources. As any IT professional knows, operating, maintaining and continually upgrading the operating system is time-consuming and fraught with peril. Because operating systems are built to support every possible software function, they are extremely cumbersome. In reality, most computing environments only need a small fraction of the capabilities of these massive systems. The additional components create added liabilities for corporations.

Everyone in the enterprise has the same operating system. This means a vast number of employees have access to powerful tools they do not really need. They could inadvertently breach proprietary data and put sensitive company assets at risk. Wouldn't it be more logical to avert these troubles by applying mass customization practices to the operating system? This approach-known as Just enough Operation System (JeOS)-is catching on with organizations looking to reduce support costs, drive efficiencies and lower risk. Tailoring the operating system creates a smaller technology footprint, resulting in better performance, improved manageability and tighter security.

Essential benefits of mass-customized operating systems

Businesses reap numerous rewards from applying the JeOS approach. The following are four major benefits for consideration:

Benefit No. 1: A mass-customized operating system vastly simplifies maintenance

Very similar to standalone devices such as DVRs and wireless access points, these purpose-built computing systems come only with the operating system and applications needed to perform a specific set of functions. These compact, self-contained environments can be deployed in a matter of minutes.

Benefit No. 2: A mass-customized operating system also results in far greater business agility

Instead of users waiting in a long queue for IT to bring their new systems online, they gain precisely-configured systems in near real time to address the latest needs. This is a powerful advantage for any business.

Benefit No. 3: Compact operating systems are highly portable

Compact operating systems can be easily moved from testing into production or from one virtual environment to another. These trimmed-down operating systems run more efficiently than their more unwieldy counterparts since they use fewer resources, and all components can be tested and optimized to run together.

Benefit No. 4: Finally (and perhaps most importantly), a trimmed-down operating system enhances security

By only providing the applications, components and associated data needed by each user type, organizations can all but eliminate the possibility of unauthorized access to sensitive information. After all, if the tools to access sensitive information do not exist on a user's system, there is no way for the user to even have an opportunity to compromise the data. This provides a very clever way to reduce the attack vectors available to hackers.