Linux gaining ground

Von Theo Boshoff

It is still one of the most heated debates, if not the most discussed topic, doing the rounds, and has been attracting a lot of attention over the past year across the ICT industry. It is, of course, the Microsoft Corp. versus Linux/Open Source debate.

Since Microsoft, in 2003, publicly announced that Open Source is a threat to its business, the onus has been on Linux and Open Source to prove their worth. The views are mixed, but it has become clear that Linux has indeed become a formidable contender in this game. Microsoft platform strategy manger, Albie Bester, has publicly stressed in previous interviews with Computing SA that Microsoft does not view the Linux technology as inferior.

Nols de Wet, marketing director of Linux-based solutions provider, Obsidian Systems, said earlier this year: "This year could see a more mainstream uptake of Linux by small and large corporates." And this seems to be just the case, as more big ICT companies are entering the Open Source race, and expanding their Open Source/Linux efforts - including Novell Inc., IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., Oracle Corp., Computer Associates International Inc., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Microsoft itself.

There are many issues concerning the Microsoft versus Linux and Open Source saga, but, according to Ed Anderson, vice-president of Enterprise at Novell, there are four major issues concerning the uptake of Linux for customers. Firstly is the issue of support for when customers have software troubles, and who will be taking responsibility. "Secondly there is consulting. The third and fourth concerns go hand in hand - certification and training. Customers need to know how they go about developing expertise for Linux in-house, and how they get the users of it to understand the technology."

Novell certainly seems to be doing things. It has appointed its first training partner - Smartsource - to deliver Novell"s Certified Linux Engineer (CLE) and SuSE Certified Linux Professional (CLP) programs locally. It is also increasing its distribution base, with partnerships with companies such as DaxData locally.

Sun has also asserted that Open Source systems are the future of affordable computing, has subsequently previewed a number of new products, and developed a roadmap for Linux support to the Sun Java Enterprise System, Java Studio development tools and AMD Opteron processor-based x86 system. Senior systems engineer at Sun, Dumisani Mtoba, says: "This confirms Sun"s intention to deliver on its strategy of bringing innovation to the Linux OS."

HP has also introduced its Linux footprint, to support its Open Source efforts. Linux business manager for HP EMEA, Eva Beck, says: "Companies are adding Linux systems to improve on investment, because they want adaptable, reliable and resource-efficient computing systems to better align ICT with business."

Then there is the issue of cost. Wayne de Nobrega, MD of Technology Concepts, says: "The real issue is about finding a cost-effective alternative to Microsoft." He says companies are feeling ?locked in" by MS, which is claimed by critics to charge huge prices, because there is no alternative. The wheel has turned and Linux seems to be that alternative.

With security also being an issue in terms of choosing MS over Linux or vice versa, both MS and Linux supporters are in agreement that Linux is performing impressively, especially in the server space. However, common consensus is that Linux is replacing Unix rather than Windows in this space.

Linux tops $1bn mark

According to recent IDC research figures, quarterly sales of servers running Linux topped the US$1bn mark during Q3 of 2004. It reports that year-on-year revenue from Linux server sales was up by 42,6 percent, and that Linux accounted for more than 9 percent of the $11,5bn in servers sold worldwide.

De Nobrega adds that, in terms of Web servers and services, Linux had over 64 percent market share during the year, and presents good alternatives to Microsoft IIS, which has only 23 percent market share.

Concerning the legal uncertainties regarding the use of Linux and possible liabilities, inroads have been made with announcements by Open Source Development Labs Inc. (OSDL) and Novell establishing vendor indemnification programmes and Novell indemnifying SuSE customers.

Then there is the concern about the lack of applications for Open Source-based technologies. It is analysts" opinion that, as the pressure for Open Source alternatives grows, application developers will see the need to produce versions of their software for Linux. According to analysts, the drive for more Open Source and Linux applications will be fuelled by application developers not wanting to lose out on revenue from a growing market.

Bester says: "At this stage I do not think any vendor can say ?take this, this option is best"." He says that it should ultimately be about the business and not about the technology. "From a Microsoft perspective the Get the Facts campaign allowed us to level the playing field in terms of perceptions that Linux is always cheaper, more secure and least resource-intensive. Customers need to look at what the technology can do, and not what it is. Microsoft now needs to position the value of its technology to a specific business."

"Essentially, the MS versus Linux battle is far from over. Linux and the Open Source community are starting to make inroads into areas in which MS was previously unchallenged," says De Nobrega. He notes, and many agree, that Linux adoption will be a gradual process. Companies, it seems, are now opting for a dual solution, combining Open Source and proprietary offerings, and only time will tell who will triumph.