Linux: Fighting for support from the board

You like Linux as a piece of technology - but how do you persuade a nervous board that it's a viable business operating system? Graham Hayday looked over some recent video interviews published on silicon.com to find some handy hints...

You like Linux as a piece of technology - but how do you persuade a nervous board that it's a viable business operating system? Graham Hayday looked over some recent video interviews published on silicon.com to find some handy hints...

Linux still isn't a suitable operating system (OS) for serious businesses - or so some of the industry's best-known gurus believe. They get quoted left, right and centre, which, combined with the might of the Microsoft marketing machine, means that many business managers wouldn't touch Linux with a long piece of CAT5 cable (assuming they knew what that was). This is very frustrating to the Linux enthusiasts, who are evangelical about its robustness, its scalability and, of course, its value for money. One source of such irritation is Martin Butler, chairman of the Butler Group. Silicon.com recently conducted a video interview with him (published today in the Enterprise OS Channel). He said: "IT managers want a viable alternative to NT - but Linux isn't viable." He went on to explain that the very nature of Linux and the way it has developed isn't reassuring. "Linux hasn't proven itself," he said. "Risk averse middle managers need to exercise caution." And that's the heart of the issue. If you've ever used Linux, it's highly likely that you'll want to deploy it. If you're a business manager who's never got his or her hands dirty with the minutiae of source code, you're bound to err on the side of caution. If your company is an NT shop and your senior IT management suddenly leave, you know their skills can be replaced. But with Linux? It's still widely seen as a toy for a small band of propeller-heads. Some people would take issue with that. Another interview published recently was with Alan Cox, director of Building Number Three, a company which provides technical support for Linux distributor Red Hat. He described his own experience of Linux. "Initially it was a hobby, something to play with. But now it's very, very stable indeed." He pointed out that in reality it's as easy to install as Windows 98 - even at the desktop. The only problem is that very few PCs come with Linux pre-installed. Rather unsurprisingly, Eric Raymond, the godfather of the open source movement, was even more ebullient about the attractions of Linux when Silicon.com caught up with him on a recent visit to London. He claimed that its share of the Web server market had grown 212 per cent in the last 12 months and quoted Netcraft figures which he said proved Microsoft's share of the business server market had slipped 17 per cent. "More and more, we're seeing corporates willing to use [Linux]," he claimed. Neil Spencer-Jones, manager of business information systems at NCC, told us of his experience at an NHS Trust that backs up Raymond's assertion - and shows how the technical community can persuade their business colleagues of Linux's virtues. He was involved in a hospital information support system (HISS) project when the supplier - CHC - went bust in the UK. Fortunately, they had an escrow agreement in place which meant they had access to the source code, but they then had to decide upon the future strategy. The proprietary system built by CHC was Unix-based, but Spencer-Jones wanted to port it to Linux as it would be robust and relatively cheap. "What was crucial in this case," he said, "was that we got board level support. We went to the board and we didn't talk about Linux and whether the third byte was a one or a zero, but whether the difference to the bottom line would be one thousand pounds, or two thousand, or sixty thousand. It was a foregone conclusion that the board would go with the decision once we'd explained the risk and what the financial savings would be." Spencer-Jones and his team believed it would save the organisation around £12,000 a year. "There was a small risk, but a big saving," he said. Martin Butler is adamant that caution is the better option. He said during the interview that: "Most IT managers are weary of technology, they want to get on with the job, and if Microsoft can indeed provide what is effectively a plug and play operating system& then that's what many IT managers are looking for. Linux doesn't have coherence. To put the whole thing together requires high levels of technical skills." Even Building Number Three's Cox admits it isn't perfect. "You can put it up and it will stay there," he said, but added that work is needed in certain areas like the stability of the interfaces, "set-up stuff" and plug and play devices. He conceded that it is "technically-oriented as a desktop platform and you wouldn't put it on the desktop of every secretary in your organisation". But he claimed that even that will change. But perhaps Spencer-Jones sums it up best: "I don't believe Linux is a technology issue. At the end of the day it's another form of Unix. What the board needs to be convinced of is the risk exposure and the financial rewards... [What we got with Linux was] better performance and lower cost." **Silicon.com publishes more than 50 video interviews every month. Go to http://www.real.com/products/player/index.html?src=downloadr to download free of charge the latest version of RealPlayer - all you need to watch the video news and interviews**