One of my most memorable such shows is Press Your Luck, an early-eighties game show in which the highlight was watching contestants electronically spin a wheel that featured spaces called Whammies, in which you lost your turn, and others called Big Bucks which meant... well, you can guess.
The energetic cry of most contestants -- "Big Bucks! No Whammies!" -- appears to well-describe the business element of the Linux community in the current Mindcraft era.
For the handful of you who don't know, Mindcraft is a testing company with a history of research indicating that Microsoft Windows NT is one of the fastest forces known to man. Tests released by Mindcraft in April demonstrate how Windows NT... can run faster at file serving than NetWare, is stronger at webservices than Solaris, and is able to run rings around Linux systems without breaking a sweat. Certainly this is a Whammy to us, since it offers those who fear Linux the necessary ammunition against its encroachment.
The worst part of this Whammy is that it has more than a kernel of accuracy. Windows NT is better than Linux on multiprocessor boxes, especially when measuring tasks such as webservices, because Apache isn't multi-threaded (that is, its code does not allow it to take full advantage of the multiple processors).
Both the report and its aftereffects have caused interest in Linux tuning and performance issues to mushroom. Many Linux folks appear to be at work fixing the real problems found in the Microsoft-funded report. Some thoughtful analyses have been done, some of them found in this collection done by Linux Weekly News. And Mindcraft President Bruce Weiner said his mail turned from 30-to-one hate mail into five-to-one in support after he announced that Mindcraft would re-do the tests to address some of the fairness concerns of critics.
Others, unfortunately, have over-reacted with evangelism and insults, including some which Weiner characterized as flat-out libel. "I expected negative reaction," Weiner said, "but what I did receive was far more than could have been imagined."
Such misdirected passion invokes another Whammy, as Microsoft supporters seek to portray the Linux community as mindless zealots. Microsoft itself doesn't seem to want to talk about it, and did not comment by press time.
Cause and effect
What's been most heartening through this story is to see that the Linux community is starting to get itself a pool of friends who share in the skepticism of Mindcraft's reports. The mainstream computer press joined the Linux community in showing some healthy cynicism when the Mindcraft Linux report came out, and we even saw some other benchmarks that painted a much different picture. As I write this, ZDLabs is attempting to duplicate the Mindcraft tests in-house, along with the help of Microsoft, Mindcraft, and Linux vendors.
Still, at that level, we're arguing over details of who is faster and by how much, a game we're likely to see play out repeatedly over the months to come. The importance of this whole episode, however, goes far beyond the attempt to pick a winner.
The very making of the Mindcraft tests show, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Linux has moved into the world of Big Bucks. We're now at the point where Linux installations are starting to take measurable, noticeable money out of Microsoft's (and other vendors') pockets. The gloves are off, and the fighting's going to get far dirtier than simply unfavorable benchmark reports.
This is good, actually.
In the absence of real hard data about the Linux installed base (how easily can you count it, when so many people download it or can legally pass around CDs?), sometimes we need to gauge our success in the commercial computing world by how much of a threat we're seen to pose to would-be competitors.
We can expect an increasing number of attempted Whammies in the months to come as every flaw of Linux, real or not, gets amplified to the world. The challenge to the community is not to prevent the Whammies, but to learn, adapt, and respond with a balance of reason and (measured!) passion.
I don't need to detail here the large number of companies that are standing behind Linux, from large database vendors to 24x7 helpdesk services to a growing army of Linux VARs and integrators. Complaints about the lack of trained Linux support people are being addressed by a waiting army of Linux training centers. They'll soon be backed by a multi-vendor, community-based certification program, the Linux Professional Institute, on whose board I'm proud to serve.
If that wasn't enough, we now see signs that Linux is on the tip of the iceberg we could refer to as Really Big Bucks -- also known in computer lingo as the enterprise, big iron, data warehouses, and mission critical. Until now, all this has been generally out of reach of the current capabilities of Linux, and we still have a way to go before Linux is truly ready for this universe. But two signs indicate that the Linux community is penetrating the mind set underneath.
The first is the Open Source Forum conference being held in Austin, Texas at the end of June. At $800 for a two-day event, and cocktails rather than beer gardens, the Open Source Forum is as culturally distant from Linux Expo as it could be.
The other sign is a $2,000 report titled The Commercialization of Linux, produced in mid-June by publisher Miller Freeman together with a number of Linux industry sponsors. Based on the synopsis I received, the report looks to provide much the same introductions to Linux and open source philosophies that one can find for free looking around the ZDNet Linux Web site for a while. But it bases some of its findings on 600 interviews conducted with information technology managers on the subject, so to provide comfort for those seeking safety in numbers. And I'm sure that for two grand it comes very nicely packaged. Maybe one day I'll get to touch a copy.
The very existence of a market for a $2,000 report on free software offers some staggering ironies. If nothing else, it indicates the entry of Linux into uncharted and exciting -- though certainly treacherous -- territory. Expect more scrutiny than a politician's sex life. But the possible reward -- the Bonus Round -- is certainly ours if we survive the Whammies to come.
What other kinds of Whammies do you see in Linux's future? Let us know in the ZDNet Linux Forum. Or write to Evan directly at email@example.com.
Evan Leibovitch has been working with Unix and Linux on PC systems for more than a dozen years. He's a partner in Starnix Inc., a Linux-centric integrator based in Brampton, Ontario. He has been heavily involved in user groups, both as a former director of UniForum Canada and as a current director of the Canadian Linux Users' Exchange. When not around computers, Evan enjoys cooking, writing, and annoying his children.