For Linux Fans, Radio Automation Has Been a Decidedly Mixed Bag
Is Linux the operating system of the future for radio? Given the industry’s reputation for running lean, cost-efficient operations, why would anyone pay the licensing fees – what some call the “Microsoft Tax” – on every computer and server if there was an industrial-strength alternative that was legal, convenient and free?
Applying Linux to automation systems seems a natural. But according to broadcast industry software developers, if the buzz over Linux that has hit other information technology markets is coming to broadcasters, it will not be happening anytime soon.
Open Source movement
Linux, the proud product of the Open Source movement in the software industry, is something of a community creation. It operates on an alternate model from traditional software, created with source code freely given and shared for the common benefit.
Is this some kind of high-tech Utopianism of socialized software? No, not altogether. What Linux points to is the special place an operating system plays. Think of it as a key element in the community infrastructure, like public roads. Just because the roads are public works does not mean that the vehicles that run on them are community property.
By the same token, this open source operating system is free. But that does not mean that the application software that runs on it is also a freebie. Unfortunately for software developers, this distinction is not altogether clear.
“We get a lot of inquiries for Linux,” said Dave Scott, president of Scott Systems. “When we tell them that the Windows and Linux versions of our systems cost the same, they’re amazed. ‘You mean it isn’t free?’ they ask. Well, I never saw anything free that was worthwhile.”
For all the freebie frustration, Scott has taken the leadership in opening the door to a Linux future. At the NAB Radio show in Philadelphia last fall, Scott Studios announced the initial release of its air studio for the new operating system. The aim was to take in-house development to stations for beta testing to polish and perfect the product.
The first takers did not arrive till five months later. In March, the company sold a four-station package. According to Scott, having beta testers marks a major step taking this from a part-time diversion project to a commercial product.
“Paying customers move us from presenting ‘things we’d like to do’ into making something commercially viable. The software gets more alpha testing by us as vendor, manuals and documentation get more serious attention, and support staff gets training in depth,” said Scott.
Still, it is a long way from these first beta tests to establishing the Linux OS as an accepted industry standard. While Scott Studios has become the center of Linux interest, other developers have seen little demand except in specialized, embedded applications like Web servers and Network Attached Storage systems. There, the legendary stability and simplicity of Linux makes for a cost-effective solution.
“We have done some work with Linux as an embedded OS for Network Attached Storage systems and have been pleased with the price/performance ratio,” said Don Backus, vice president of sales and marketing for ENCO Systems.
“As far as a platform for actual development goes, we generally think of Linux as a solution waiting for a problem at least in our specialized field of application development,” he said.
What interest Backus sees from potential customers is not exactly a match for the advantages of the OS.
“The few that do ask for Linux are interested for reasons other than performance or reliability, which are keys to providing digital automation tools. Generally, they are interested because of the price vs. Windows or because of an intense dislike of Microsoft. Neither of these are a compelling business propositions for professional delivery systems,” said Backus.
At Broadcast Electronics, plans for Linux start with a new Web-enabled software management suite. Radio Data Dimensions is intended to allow stations to develop, schedule, manage and provision advanced data services for their RDS and HD Radio products. End user access to the applications is done via a web browser, but the main server application is Linux based.
“For this application, we felt Linux was a good choice given the relative cost of Linux and Windows OS, and its reliability for this database server application,” said Ray Miklius, BE vice president of studio products.
For Miklius, part of the benefit here is getting the BE development team acquainted with the OS.
“This will allow BE an entrée into supporting a Linux-based application in the field. If we ever do a Linux AudioVault, we will have developed some experience in supporting it through this effort,” he said.
Still, Miklius says this initial effort is more about keeping current with the possibilities rather than charting a new direction.
“We currently have no plans to develop a Linux-based studio automation system. Our current AudioVault system is Windows-based, given that that is where we came from. We have over 2 million lines of code written to support the feature set that our radio customers depend on. Besides, there are only a limited number of audio cards and computer peripherals with Linux drivers. We are also concerned with the pending lawsuits between SCO and IBM and others regarding patent infringement,” Miklius said.
There is uncertainty in the Linux community at large over questions of patent infringement. But for broadcast developers, a greater concern is the practical realities of running the operating system.
While the software may be free, the total cost of operation is not. In the real world, installing and maintaining a Linux-based could cost more than running Windows. Savings should come to the largest organizations paying out the most for Windows licenses. But Prophet Systems says that one of its major clients – which also happens to be its owner – has not shown much interest.
“Clear Channel technology people are among the best, so they have definitely looked at Linux. For now, they are not asking us to ship it, mostly, in my opinion, because of cost of support, lack of drivers and lack of training products,” said Kevin Lockhart, Prophet Systems president.
The support issue is particularly problematic for Lockhart. While Linux is “free,” the reality is that companies must either pay for in-house expertise or pay for packaged Linux OS solutions that give it mainstream accessibility.
Red Hat, the best-known solution provider, offers the amenities that enterprise Microsoft users expect, but there is an initial cost as well as fees for ongoing support. Even though many of PSI’s systems have been tested and are even supported on Linux, leaving the possibilities open, the actual cost today is not competitive.
“Any major company is going to insist on factory support for OS systems running large parts of their technology. We provide Novell, Microsoft and Linux support but must have access to factory support to make driver changes and bug fixes,” said Lockhart.
He also said the full cost of Red Hat, including support, is higher than that of Novell by 5 to 25 percent depending on license count. Red Hat also charges a higher charge for on-site training and, according to Lockhart, offers a far inferior training product.
“The other PC flavors of Linux may be cheaper but offer less support, training and maturity than even Red Hat,” Lockhart said.
It may be that the window for Linux has already been slammed shut. In the Windows 95/98 era, instability was a major issue. Broadcasters were plagued by the need to reboot these early Windows machines regularly. This was a step back from the maturity of previous DOS-based systems. Linux offered a serious advantage in stability and was tempting for WireReady founder David Gurstman.
“We were probably the last company to put automation in Windows. A good DOS system could run forever. Windows 95/98 was something else. You had to reboot every Friday or it would reboot you. So stations would toss a CD on air and reboot. I came close to putting all our efforts to porting to Linux because I could not envision automation running on Windows 95/98,” Gurstman said.
Gurstman was not the only one to notice the shortcomings of a consumer-grade operating system in mission-critical applications. During the mid-1990s Microsoft understood the possibility for competition in the professional market and developed Windows NT (and then Windows 2000) to address the stability issues.
“We had clients with DOS that didn’t reboot for years. Now we have Windows 2000 users that have been running constantly, too. The only reason I can’t say that they’ve been up and running as long as the old DOS systems is because it hasn’t been out as long,” said Gurstman.
Today’s Windows is a far cry from the notorious early days.
Security vs. stability
But the success of Microsoft brings additional problems. Stability issues have given way to questions of security. Even as his company moves forward with Linux development, Dave Scott admits that Windows – plus some common sense – is hard to beat.
“When all versions of Windows had to be rebooted, Linux made a lot of sense. Now, there’s nothing bad about Windows 2000. Yes, it’s prone to viruses. But air studios shouldn’t be connected to Internet without firewalls. You shouldn’t be surfing Internet with mission critical systems,” said Scott.
Kevin Loper, president of Pristine Systems said, “There was some interest … regarding a robust digital automation system for Linux prior to the dot-com implosion. There has been literally no interest in it since.
“Once again Microsoft has proven itself as the leader in the OS arena by launching Windows XP PRO. It truly is the ‘killer’ OS of the decade. I believe that most tech heads in our industry have realized that XP PRO delivers all of the power and reliability necessary as a platform for robust automation.”
Even more important than the technical considerations, he said, is the knowledge base in radio.
“There is no doubt that most everyone understands the basic daily operations of Windows. This just isn’t true for Linux,” he said.
“The main complaint about Windows not being reliable or being expensive simply isn’t true in today’s world of bits and bytes.”