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Battle brews over Linux server share

IDC says Linux is used in about one-third of servers, contrary to new Dataquest figures. Meantime, Microsoft insists Linux is a 'niche play'

A major disagreement is brewing about exactly what share of the server market Linux actually holds, and Microsoft is again an active player in the debate.

A recently released Gartner Dataquest report, sponsored by several companies including Microsoft, found that just 8.6 percent of server shipments in the US during the third quarter of 2000 were Linux-based.

The report, authored by Gartner Dataquest principal analyst Jeff Hewitt, also found that 93 percent of those server systems shipped were Red Hat Linux, with the remaining 7 percent consisting of "other Linux flavours".

Another interesting finding was that when so-called "white box", or non-branded, server purchases were excluded and only branded server purchases considered, Linux's share of the market fell to just 6 percent in the third quarter of 2000.

"Linux continues to be on a growth path, and Gartner Dataquest believes the demand for Linux-based servers will grow to 10 percent of server shipments in 2001," the report stated. "The primary demand for these servers will be as Internet or infrastructure servers."

The objective of the study was to "establish some solid data from which to derive realistic Linux market share data", the report added.

But these numbers fly in the face of other research reports from such groups as IDC. Dan Kusnetzky, an IDC analyst, told eWEEK that his company's provisional figures for 2000 showed that Linux as a server operating system -- regardless of the operating system or machine on which it was installed -- represented 27 percent of the total market, behind Windows at 41 percent.

Kusnetzky said there was a definite distinction between an actual server and server software that allowed machines to operate as servers. "The actual server market is much smaller than the server operating environment, which includes PCs and workstations running server software and configured to act as a server," he said.

The Gartner number would be "quite reasonable" if it simply surveyed those new servers that came with Linux preinstalled, Kusnetzky said.

"But our research is that this is not how most users get their Linux," he said. "We found that just 10 to 15 percent of Linux adoption comes from preinstalled machines. It's a very small part of the market. For every paid copy of Linux, there is a free copy that can be replicated 15 times."

But Gartner's Hewitt was adamant that his methodology and findings were correct. Some 724 US-based respondents had answered questions over the phone for the survey, he said, ranging from small organisations with fewer than 50 PCs to large companies with more than 500 computers, as well as educational institutions, Internet service providers and application service providers.

Respondents were screened to ensure they were knowledgeable about server purchases over the quarter, and they were asked what percentage of their server purchases were Linux servers, he said.

"We went to end users, rather than looking at just sales numbers, and asked them what servers they had bought over the past three months and what operating system they had installed on it over the same period," Hewitt said. "There was no question about whether Linux was preinstalled or not, we simply asked about new shipments and this is what we found."

This was the second server-related study Hewitt has conducted that found Linux has a far smaller market share than was commonly believed. While the first study was far smaller, with just 200 respondents, the results had been even lower for Linux, he said.

"While I accept my results may not include some desktop and workstations configured as Linux servers, I simply do not believe that Linux is shipping on 25 percent or more of all new servers and I just cannot believe the IDC figures," Hewitt said. "They are simply pushing the envelope and overstating what the operating system is actually doing."

If the majority of customers got their Linux via download or some other way, "then the market is in even worse shape than my survey shows," he said. "How many support contracts are vendors going to get from those customers? I have already told Red Hat that they are stretching the numbers they put out to the marketplace, which resulted in a very lively debate."

Red Hat could not be immediately reached for comment, but a source close to the company said he was "really surprised" by the Gartner numbers.

"The IDC figures are significantly different. They report on what they can count and verify. The fact that Microsoft was a sponsor of the research bothers me, and the results seem most convenient given its ranting against open source, the GPL and Linux of late," the source said.

Doug Miller, Microsoft's director of competitive strategy for the Windows division, also jumped into the fray, continuing the recent trend of Microsoft executives who have attacked open source, Linux and the GPL.

Miller told eWEEK that Microsoft had helped sponsor the study to see exactly who was using Linux, what the server deployments were and what operating system was running on it.

"There has been a lot of hype around Linux over the past year, and we wanted to try and find out the real story on its adoption," he said. "While I admit there has been interest in Linux, this by no means accounts for one out of every four new servers sold. That is simply ridiculous."

The study results prove that Linux on the server side is still "just a niche play", Miller added. "It's unrealistic to look at sales numbers and believe that all of these are being deployed. While many users have bought Linux to try it out, a large number of those copies bought, downloaded and acquired were tested and then never actually used," he said.

"Many of our customers have tested it, but found that it falls short of what is required for a business server platform," Miller said. "Windows has good penetration on the server side, but the misstated Linux market share figures unfairly present the actual position of Novell and others rather than us."

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's chief executive, recently described Linux as a "cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches. That's the way the [GPL] license works," he said.

His comments followed similar attacks by senior vice presidents Craig Mundie and Jim Allchin.

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