The Skeptical Examiner: Some notes on Linux
- By Jack Vaughan
Linux unleashed on the computer world is not unlike Java. Both Java and Linux
took something that was a bit tedious -- object-oriented programming in one
case, operating systems in the other -- and made them cool.
One affected the world of development; the other affected the computer room.
Java had its Duke, Linux its penguin. Both had appeal to staff that leaned
toward idealism and managers that leaned toward pragmatism. Both Java and Linux
have been pretty much stuck on the server side, with only a few client-side
stories to tell.
While IBM and Sun Microsystems have been soul mates (if not always jolly soul
mates) at various Java love-fests, they have taken different courses on Linux.
IBM software honcho Steve Mills has admitted IBM's first Linux forays were ad
hoc -- driven by in-house teams who ported software on Saturdays and Sundays.
But IBM has been quick to ride the Linux wave.
Speaking at LinuxWorld in New York in January, IBM's Mills said the reason to
go for Linux is simple: customers want it. To date, the message Sun has received
from its customers has been less clear. Sun, although it doled out $1.3 billion
in stock to buy Linux blade maker Cobalt Networks, has been slower to get Linux
Some elements driving Linux are in fact indictments of software vendors as a
whole, and how they have built their businesses over the years. Linux guru Mad
Dog Hall has put it this way: You get stuck with software. And you get stuck
with software upgrades whether you want them or not.
So why should a vendor like IBM have an interest in software that so turns
the OS into more of a commodity?
Customers want to be better able to architect, manage, partition and cluster
their CPU pools, said IBM's Mills, in his near-SRO keynote at LinuxWorld.
Conversations on the show floor expanded on this -- customers seem especially
loath to be at the mercy of vendor-dictated OS upgrades, and they see Linux open
source as empowering in this regard.
But even as Linux makes substantial inroads on the
server side, observers ask if it will ever play a big role on client systems.
While administrative software helpings were most plentiful on the plates at
LinuxWorld, client-side developments were somewhat sparse, although Sun was
there to talk about a deal with Ximian to connect the latter's e-mail client to
Sun e-mail and calendar servers.
''HP and IBM are abandoning Unix,'' said Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's executive
vice president, software, at a LinuxWorld news conference. Such talk may
indicate that Solaris still holds a warmer place than Linux at Sun. This may be
reasonable, given the greater success of Sun Microsystems' Solaris vs. IBM's
For his part, Schwartz said that Linux was ''growing aggressively on the
desktop,'' particularly overseas. But North America, he indicated, is a different
matter. However, he added that ''appetite for an alternative desktop in North
America is nil.''
Operating system changes are key. ''Delivering [Star Office] on Windows isn't
very compelling,'' said Schwartz. ''You have to offer a complete
''Our marketing plan [for Star
Office] is the same as ever -- customers find it,'' he continued. ''You won't
see billboards on the highway.''
The company was at work on a combo Linux-Solaris blade server rollout even as
Schwartz spoke. But Sun's software boss projected a somewhat more casual
interest in Linux than his counterpart at IBM.
Of course, a Skeptical Examiner might opine
that IBM is so attuned to its customers' calls for Linux because it can increase
its server stake. Empowering customers may be a side-effect.
Linux is an opportunity for IBM to regain ground lost in the early
client/server days when many of its mainframes were replaced by Unix boxes,
especially those from Sun and HP. Like every technology push, this had its pros
and cons. Developers and sys admins both know the truckloads of midrange
computers made a mess of many a computer room. The ongoing move to more
carefully architected rack-mounted server farms, which in turn is accompanied by
efforts to consolidate workloads, plays to traditional IBM strong points, said
IBM's Mills at LinuxWorld.
Linux's rapid maturation may coincide with a larger
maturation of software as a business. Technology is constantly evolving, while
the issues it is meant to solve, and the people who must develop and administer
the technology, remain much the same. Sun, IBM and other vendors should realize
that buyers are used to certain autonomy in their dealings with sellers. It is
perilous for any vendor to ignore that particular message of the Linux
Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.