Beware of the Dog, especially if he’s a Justice of the Peace, a world-reknowned beer drinker, the guy who sponsored Linus Torvald’s first trip to Durham, New Hampshire, and the person who made sure that the first port of the Linux OS was to the Alpha architecture. During his all too brief tenure as Digital’s Linux evangelist, SKHPC compadre Jon “maddog” Hall espoused the virtues of Linux and open source at IT industry events. He even got me a prized possession, a Linus Torvalds autographed copy of Digital Red Hat Linux V2.1.
According to an online article in Boston Internet.com, the Dog has a world-class case of distemper these days. According to the author, after each presentation, audience members would crowd around the white-bearded computer vet, at first expressing excitement but then invariably rattling off a litany of reasons the code was unsuitable for their large company or organization. (Having attended more than a few maddog Magnum Opuses, I never heard one disparaging remark about Linux.) As time passed and Linux and the open source movement advanced, Hall, now executive director of Linux International, concluded—and rightfully so—that all the IT executives’ misgivings were unfounded from the start or no longer valid. Or, perhaps, grounded in trade press blather or the rantings of misguided Key Influencers.
From JP to Juris Doctor
So now, when he speaks, the expert programmer sounds more like a lawyer, offering a point-by-point refutation of allegations against his client. “People associate certain characteristics with Linux that I don’t believe are true,” Hall said in his keynote address at the recent Enterprise Linux Forum. One of the most popular charges against Linux is that it lacks apps. According to figures from IBM there are more than 3.5K commercial apps for Linux, including office and accounting tools. There are also Linux apps that emulate the look and feel of Windows offerings. A second misconception is that Linux is too hard to learn. A slew of books, discussion groups and white papers have been recently published to help beginners get going with Linux. What’s more, high schools, colleges, IT services firms and vendors are rapidly offering Linux courses.
A Linux equivalent of the MSCE license doesn’t exist yet, but the Linux Professional Institute does offer certification; more info is at www.lpi.org. Another common concern about Linux is that it is too hard to manage. Some see ongoing OS revisions as a red flag for buggy code—ironic to those of us who endure several Windows Updates per week—not to mention service packs and viruses that won’t go away. Engineers at proprietary software companies spend a goodly amount of time updating their code, but such activities are not taking place in a public forum. Also falling under the management heading are scalability and support concerns. While it began on PCs, Linux can now be run on everything from a handheld personal digital assistant all the way up to supercomputers. As for support, most vendors have toll free numbers or e-mail service to troubleshoot problems. Private Linux consultants are also available for hire.
A Risky Scheme?
At the conclusion of Hall’s generic keynote address, he usually cites the most-common justification for not running Linux in the enterprise—it’s just too risky. It’s an assertion that renders the usually mild-mannered maddog downright thermonuclear in his demeanor.“If (Linux) is too risky then go with a company like Wang or Prime or Digital Equipment Corp.,” Hall said. “Even if a company stays in business there is no guarantee that a product line will continue to exist.” Indeed! Just ask a PDP-11, VAX, Alpha, or MPE/iX user!
Catching the Wave
Is Linux catching on? You bet! IDC figures that unit sales of desktop versions of Linux grew ~50 percent last year. That still leaves Linux with just 2.7 percent of desktop OS shipments, while ~94 percent of those 110M shipments came from Microsoft. But the loss of even a mere 2.7 percent of the operating system and apps market, coupled with major Linux deals with IBM and HP, are developments that ought to give Team Redmond plenty of cause for concern.
Restless in Redmond?
And the cause for concern is sure to increase, and not without good reason. After all, PCs running Linux are deemed appropriate for some businesses already. Zumiez Inc., a retailer of skateboard-related clothing and accessories, is equipping ~100 stores with PCs running Linux, plus add-on software from Ximian and others. The Everett, WA, retailer estimates that installing Microsoft Windows and Office on each PC would have cost $500 more per store. And Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery Inc. in Westport, MA, adopted Red Hat’s Linux on servers because of Windows reliability problems, and now plans to shift its PCs to Linux. The firm expects to pay ~$120 for Linux software for each PC, compared with $650 for a Windows OS and apps for each PC. $60K may be chump change, but once $60K becomes $600K, Microsoft beancounters are bound to notice the impact.
Several other developments have made Linux more attractive. For example, Sun Microsystems is now selling a more-sophisticated version of StarOffice, a set of Linux productivity apps that is now largely compatible with Microsoft Office.
And of course, Linux is “free.” Its underlying source code can be freely modified by users to fix bugs and improve reliability, an option Microsoft proscribes. Plus, Linux can be downloaded free over the Internet. Red Hat, SuSE, et al now bundle inexpensive Linux distributions with other apps, the goal being to make money from services. And as more and more vendors will tell you, there’s gold in them there Linux service hills.
Terry Shannon, firstname.lastname@example.org
IT Consultant and Publisher
Shannon Knows HPC
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