A senior IT executive at a major pharmaceutical company summed up the challenge for Linux at the ZDNet UK IT Priorities conference today when he asked one simple question: what are the benefits in migrating from Microsoft to Linux at the desktop?
"What's my incentive? At my company we have 20,000 users in the UK; 12 use Apple Macs, everyone else uses Windows. I don't love Microsoft software and am open to change, but I can't see the value," he said.
Ole-Bjorn Tuftedal, the chief technical officer for the City of Bergen, Norway, which carried out a major Linux implementation in June this year, had a simple answer.
He said that economy and security benefits should make IT managers seriously examine the issue of desktop migration to Linux. Tuftedal said that security costs can add between 10 and 20 percent to what organisations are already paying Microsoft in terms of licensing fees.
Chris Schlaeger, the vice president of research and development at Novell, agreed that cost was a big benefit.
"The daredevils that look at Linux today will be the winners saving money in a few years," said Schlaeger.
Adam Jollans, worldwide Linux strategy manager at IBM, pointed out that part of the reason why open-source operating systems appear more secure is that Microsoft's Windows is being targeted by people writing viruses. But, he claimed, Linux has a fundamentally more secure architecture and this is reflected in the way open-source applications are developed.
"The open-source methodology produces better code as more are people looking at the code," said Jollans.
Nick McGrath, head of platform strategy at Microsoft, had other ideas. He strongly disagreed that customers purchasing Windows were getting a raw deal on price and security. He conceded that some customers might be better off with Linux, but said that customers should make a case by case evaluation based on their own requirements.
"Sometimes Windows costs more than Linux, sometimes it's the other way around. Customers need to look at their operating environment," said McGrath.
He also said that Microsoft swiftly patches vulnerabilities in Windows, but conceded that there can be issues with the complexity of patches, which the company is working on improving.
"It is a problem. Microsoft is trying to get better, and become more consistent in putting patches out. For example, we have released a patch management server which helps organisations test and deploy patches; we now have Patch Tuesday [a day once a month when Microsoft puts out all the security patches it's been working on]," said McGrath.
Other advantages of Linux discussed by the panel included improved task-based functionality, support for multi-user environments and the fact that it is an open standard which provides some measure of vendor independence.
Novell's Schlaeger said that customers have said they want improved task-based functionality to increase the productivity of their employees and to cut down the time they spend fixing changes employees make to their PC.
"Our customers don't want employees to play Solitaire all day. Novell has invested heavily in kiosk technology where the desktop functionality is cut down, so that it only includes applications which companies want their employees to use," said Schlaeger.
Bergen's Tuftedal said that it was easier to set up a Linux desktop so that it could be used securely by multiple users because the operating system originated from Unix, which unlike Windows was originally designed as a multi-user environment.
Microsoft's McGrath denied that Linux has any advantage over Windows in this area and said that since Windows 98, customers have had the ability to reduce functionality in the desktop using profiles and policies.
IBM and Novell's executives emphasised the importance of Linux's open-source credentials. IBM's Jollans emphasised that open standards are key for interoperability and independent software vendors (ISVs). Novell's Schlaeger spoke of the risk that companies may not be able to read their Microsoft files in the future.
"Who guarantees that you can access your information from a proprietary file format five years down the road? Open standards relieve you of that pain. I use an open-standard file format so that I can keep the keys to my information," said Schlaeger.
McGrath responded that Microsoft recognises that proprietary standards are a risk to companies and for this reason has provided support for the XML standard in Office 2000.
"This is something we are very, very aware of. We are trying to make file format changes as we recognise this is a challenge to customers," said McGrath.