Linux on the mind at Comdex
LAS VEGAS (IDG) -- Anybody walking down the Linux pavilion at the Comdex/Fall '98 show here this week couldn't fail to notice a lot of smiling faces.
The booths of Linux vendors such as Red Hat and Caldera were swamped with attendees eager to get information about the open-source software products offered here.
Considering the recent debates about the commercial viability of Linux, fueled by Microsoft's recent so-called Halloween documents -- in which the operating systems giant mused about the short-term threat Linux may pose to its Windows NT platform-it is no surprise that Linux was on everybody's mind.
"Linux has been developed by really good and bright people," said Barry Gilstrap, president of BEC, an Internet services provider in Witchita, Kan., who is running his servers on Linux.
Software developed by programmers in their spare time without commercial pressures has made Linux a better operating system than Windows or Unix, Gilstrap said, expressing an often heard sentiment here this week.
While critical remarks about Linux were hard to come by here, many observers said that while Linux has a major cost advantage-it is free-it still has a way to go to become a real threat to Windows.
Then again, given Linux's stability and reliability, vendors and users alike predict that Linux has a bright future ahead. And more corporate IS managers are now considering Linux as an option.
Steven Greenstein, president of Advanced Medical Systems which is a medical claims processor in Kenner, Louisiana, is no exception. Since his company needs to upgrade its IS systems to become year-2000 compliant, Greenstein is investigating any and all options for replacing the company's SCO Unix systems it is running now. For this Linux is a strong contender.
"What is going to happen to SCO if Linux is free and SCO charges $1,000 for it? We can't lose any performance so now it all comes down to benchmarking the different OSes," Greenstein said.
About 8 million to 9 million people use Linux today, estimated Jon Hall, executive director of Linux International, an Amherst, N.H.-based organization that is promoting Linux.
Linux is by no means just a U.S. phenomenon either, Hall said. Companies in Latin America, Asia and Europe are now "extremely interested" in the OS, he said, adding that the OS is a much cheaper alternative to NT, especially for users in developing countries.
Moreover, 50% of those implementing Linux today are new users of the system, said Ransom Love, president and CEO of Caldera. Value added resellers and systems integrators are the biggest customers at the moment, Love said.
Linux has also taken off particularly well in Europe, according to a spokesman for S.u.S.E, a Linux vendor based in Germany. "Europeans are looking for solutions," and haven't been bombarded with the Microsoft message as heavily as U.S. companies, he said. European companies have turned to Linux as a next-generation Unix.
S.u.S.E. announced a new support and training program for its Linux operating system at Comdex and showed off its suite of office applications for the platform.
For system integrators and small businesses that can't afford to pay Microsoft's high per-user cost for their operating systems, Linux is a great deal, said Donald Rosenberg, president of Stromian Technologies, an international consultant group focusing on software licensing issues.
"Linux is very robust," said Christian Wissmann, international marketing director for Quadratec, a software development firm specializing in data back-up and storage in Orsay, France. "It's not as sophisticated as other OSes, but it's very visible and predictable. That means that when I have a problem, I know I can fix it. At the moment, our customers demand Linux," Wissmann said.
The fact that the open software process allows for anybody to contributes ideas and features to the operating system makes it a strong contender to run corporate servers, said Donnie Barnes, MIS director for Red Hat, in Orem, Utah.
"That is why Linux is such a strong alternative in the commercial market," Barnes said. "If you need a feature that the OS doesn't have you can add it yourself. You can't do that with Windows."
Although Linux has found its place in the server arena, in the absence of a critical mass of applications, its penetration of the desktop market is a ways off, users and vendors here noted.
That, however, is bound to change. Major database vendors such as IBM, Informix and, notably, Oracle are porting their products to Linux and application vendors such as Corel are doing the same with their desktop applications.
Corel is starting to port all of its major products-including WordPerfect and CorelDraw-to Linux and expects to roll out the applications in the third quarter of 1999, said Ron McNab, vice president at Corel.
"We are a citizen of Linux," McNab said. "Linux is an excellent alternative to NT or any other OS. The way the development of Linux has been carried out, it has much more functionality than NT because you have the code to create whatever you need.
"Any developer worth his salt will say, after having worked with Linux, that it's far superior to NT because it's more robust and sophisticated and predictable and it scales beautifully," McNab added. "Linux hardly ever breaks. And if it does, you can solve the problem."
The recent buzz around Linux has applications developers flocking to Red Hat and Caldera asking for help with developing a strategy for Linux, company officials said.
How much of a threat Linux will be to NT remains to be seen, most attendees said.
While some say it is possible to build corporate networks without Windows on it, the likelihood of that happening is slim.
"There is a trend going on (with Linux), but I wouldn't call it a backlash yet," said Daniel Kuznetsky, program director of operating environments and server software at International Data Corp. Linux has caught on with the "anything but Microsoft" crowd.
"There are people who don't want to be subservient to the company that is supposed to be serving them," Kuznetsky said, referring to the feeling of some corporate users that they are forced into a never-ending expensive upgrade cycle with Windows products.
Microsoft's business model doesn't fit with most companies' business models, he pointed out. Most companies want to save as much money as possible and preserve their hardware and software investments over the long term, while Microsoft propagates the opposite approach, issuing regular upgrades.
But Linux hasn't really reached critical mass in the mainstream corporate market, Kuznetsky said. In addition, when companies do use Linux, it isn't usually as a stand-alone environment, he said. Instead, Linux is usually working on specific servers alongside Windows or Unix machines.
According to Kuznetsky and other industry observers, many corporate executives don't even know they are using it, since IS managers often install Linux to solve certain problems even if they have a predominately Unix or Windows environment.
"We see that all the time," Red Hat's Barnes confirmed.
Another issue muddying the waters for Linux is how application developers and Linux operating system vendors will in the long run make money, Kuznetsky said. For example, if Oracle ports its Oracle8i database to Linux, can it charge the full price it does for NT and Unix versions?
So far, Linux users are accustomed to paying little or nothing for Linux applications. However, if Oracle offers the Linux version at a discount, the users of other versions of the database will want a discount too, Kuznetsky said.
Linux International's Hall, however, thinks that application vendors shouldn't offer a discount to Linux users, since savings come from not having to pay per-user licenses for the operating system itself.
For its part, Microsoft has a business-as-usual attitude about the rise of the free operating system. It considers the interest in Linux as not any different than other Windows competitors, said Microsoft spokesman Tom Pilla.
In the highly competitive technology market, where people want to "make you obsolete in a year," it is no surprise that competing operating systems are gaining interest, Pilla said.
Microsoft doesn't plan to take any particular track on fending off Linux though. It will simply continue to build more features into Windows in order to make it competitive, according to Pilla.
Torsten Busse is San Francisco Bureau Chief for the IDG News Service. Kristi Essick is Senior European Correspondent for the IDG News Service. Mary Jo Wagner is a correspondent in the IDG News Service's London bureau.
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