Linux Becomes a Cog in Machinery

IT managers adopt operating system to gain more control of enterprise computing environment.

Komatsu mining systems Inc. builds mining equipment, such as dump trucks, tractors and excavators, but the IT managers in the companys engineering department didnt have to dig deep to find reasons to begin using the Linux operating system for mission-critical applications.

The promise of more control over their computing environment was all it took to persuade Komatsu IT managers to use the open-source MySQL database management system, running on Version 6.2 of Red Hat Inc.s Red Hat Linux and servers from Penguin Computing Inc. as the foundation of a major online, spare-parts cataloging and tracking application.

The application is critical to Komatsu because the mining equipment it makes typically remains in service for up to 80,000 hours—anywhere from five to 10 years. Even as newer models come off the assembly line, Komatsu must still be able to locate parts for older machinery, as well as design-related documents, blueprints, schematics and analysis documents. The 150 members of Komatsus engineering department, in Peoria, Ill., access the PDF and PostScript files in the database every day using applications developed in-house.

"Our data needs to last for a long period of time," said Jose Santiago, an analyst in Komatsus scientific systems department. "And with open source, we dont have to be concerned that the application vendor will go away and cause the data to become unusable. Also, with open-source applications, we can make changes to them so that they fit our needs."

The use of Linux as a database server is something many IT organizations are holding back on. According to analysts at Meta Group Inc., in Stamford, Conn., as a database server, Linux will struggle and should not be considered for production use until 2004. That, they say, is because Linux still lacks critical features such as built-in journaling. Without journaling, data stored in cache memory can be lost in a power or system failure.

Santiago is getting around that problem by running a universal power supply on the Linux server. Hes also putting periodic database files into ASCII files and backing those up. With the release of the 2.4 Linux kernel, Santiago said these issues will eventually go away.

Santiago said that, so far, hes satisfied with Linuxs scalability. Even with hundreds of thousands of records generated by his applications, Linux and the MySQL database can handle them. And, Santiago said, scalability will only get better as Linux matures. "Were not doing banking, so if I lose a transaction, its not a showstopper," Santiago said. "If we were more transaction-critical, that may cause us to consider something like Oracle or Informix."

Besides using Linux as a critical parts database application, Komatsu is using it as a file server and a print server. And the company takes advantage of the open-source operating system for network information management with programs such as Network Information System and Domain Name System. Altogether, Komatsus engineering department has 10 Linux servers in a mixed computing environment that includes Windows NT 4.0, NetWare and Hewlett-Packard Co.s HP-UX. To make the back-end database accessible, Santiago and his team created a Web interface to the database so users can easily request files.

While Linux is a major piece of Komatsus IT environment, Santiago doesnt advertise the fact. Unbeknown to many end users, the departments e-mail program from Sendmail Inc. runs on Linux. And few people realize Linux powers the internal and external departmental Web servers, and thats a secret Santiago doesnt mind keeping to himself.

"Im using Linux, so I have to be 100 percent right all of the time because I dont get the same slack as if I was using a commercial operating system," Santiago said. "If they dont know theyre using Linux, that means everythings working right."