It's Time to Customize the OS

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Mass customization -- the process of customizing a product to meet individual needs while leveraging mass production efficiency -- is commonplace in manufacturing everything from cars to laptops. Yet the operating system has remained monolithic, even while there has been an explosion in hardware platforms, mobile devices and applications.

To date, the ability to customize, test and deploy a tailored OS for a specific use or device has been slow, expensive and complicated. Furthermore, you customize at your own risk because the process often results in the loss of vendor support.

Fortunately this is changing. IT departments are starting to tailor OSs to gain agility, drive down support costs and enhance security. This is particularly true in the Linux environment, where new tools are making the promise of a tailored, fully supported Linux a reality.

Historically, major OS distributions have been notorious for their bulk and complexity. The time, effort and resources required to install, maintain and upgrade a complete OS are substantial. Operating systems are designed to support every possible software function, yet most applications require only a fraction of the capabilities. The extra, unused assets become a liability from a security and management perspective.

A better approach is to create an environment using only the OS resources needed for a particular application set. This is known as JeOS (just enough operating system). The question is: How do we move to a JeOS environment?

Customizing Linux

Ironically, although Linux is modular and designed to be customized, relatively few organizations take advantage of the capability because of the support issue.

Linux vendors are addressing that by improving the granularity of their packages to enable buyers to take existing Linux building blocks and apply them in different combinations based on each user's needs. Linux's modular architecture is ideal for creating JeOS because it can be easily stripped down and modified.

Mass customization leverages the cost benefits and efficiencies of mass production, coupled with the ability to tailor an OS for different use cases. And because this tailoring is achieved through the arrangement of standard Linux components, it is fully supported.

And there are many other benefits:

* Simplified deployment. Tailoring the OS for a specific need results in a slimmed-down product that is easier to deploy. In the JeOS model, the time needed for testing and deployment can shrink from weeks to minutes. A preconfigured, self-contained package with no external dependencies is easy to transfer through testing into the production environment, and is highly portable between virtual environments, making it beneficial for disaster recovery and other scenarios.

* Reduced maintenance costs. Reducing the Linux load to only the functions needed for a given use also vastly simplifies software management and maintenance. These compact, finely tuned JeOS environments also allow applications to run more efficiently, with all components tested and optimized to run together. This is similar to how consumer equipment such as DVRs work. They are purpose-built with only the OS and application needed to perform a specific set of functions. Because the devices run on a trimmed-down OS, they are easier to set up, operate and maintain.

* Strengthened security. Mass customization of Linux is also an important factor for businesses needing to comply with regulations that require controlling access to sensitive data. By deploying a trimmed-down environment tailored to include only the applications, components and associated data needed by each user, organizations can build a foundation that helps prevent access by unauthorized users. Moreover, since JeOS contains fewer components, there are fewer attack vectors for hackers to exploit.

* Greater agility. Mass customization helps IT become more agile by reducing the time required to deploy new servers and speeding response to changing business needs. New use cases can be precisely configured and deployed to address market shifts. Additionally, these highly portable environments can be scaled up or down to rapidly respond to resource peaks and valleys.

In the future, virtually all computers will be tailored to meet an individual's unique profile, from the OS on up. The use of mass customized operating environments will proliferate as organizations realize the considerable financial, security and maintenance benefits.

Virtual appliances are one example of a mass customization success story, with IDC predicting the worldwide market for software and virtual appliances will reach $1.1 billion by 2012 worldwide. As demand for mass customization of Linux increases, we'll see businesses explore new use cases, from USB stick-based computers to cloud computing.

All that's needed now are tools to make mass customization a reality. We didn't achieve mass customization of cars until Ford thought up the assembly line. We need the equivalent of the assembly line in the OS world: tools that provide rapid, fully supported mass market efficiency, reliability and consistency, while allowing for individuality.

Mass customization will become the de facto standard for those looking to create a fully supported, tailored OS experience. Ultimately, this is the best path toward a more efficient, higher-performing OS environment. This transformation will open up new possibilities that were previously unheard of in the enterprise and beyond.

Richards is senior program manager of Novell's SUSE Appliance Program.

This story, "It's Time to Customize the OS" was originally published by Network World.

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