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The Skeptical Examiner: Some notes on Linux

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 fever.

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.

Server/Client
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 AIX.

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 alternative.''

''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.

Opportunity knocks
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 movement.

About the Author

Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.

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