Linux standing on the shoulders of giants

Few companies are ignoring the rise of the Linux operating system. And now moving alongside most providers of applications software (one vendor aside), is a pack of the world's largest hardware providers. Dominic Maher takes a look at the market

Few companies are ignoring the rise of the Linux operating system. And now moving alongside most providers of applications software (one vendor aside), is a pack of the world's largest hardware providers. Dominic Maher takes a look at the market

Various flavours of Unix or Microsoft's Windows NT have long been the operating system (OS) of choice for many PC and server hardware manufacturers, but if Linux has its way, this will change. The open source platform has been loitering in the wings for some time and last week it had its biggest boost to date at the Linux World show in the US. Compaq, Dell, HP and IBM all confirmed they will be supporting Linux on a bigger scale. For example, HP has gone as far as to list Linux as an OS of choice alongside Windows NT and Unix. Linux's growth is reflected in research figures that show it is set to grow strongly. It has already made its presence felt in the mid-range server market, where it has a 25 per cent market share, according to IDC. Although Microsoft still holds a 40 per cent share in the same mid-range server market its sales have been flat, according to Ian Bramley, director of enterprise platforms at Butler Group. Conversely, Linux usage has doubled year-on-year to claim its 25 per cent market share. Bramley said: "Due to the fanatical enthusiasm for the open source code from expert system developers, it has the ability to move quicker than rivals." Bramley used IBM as a prime example of how vendors are backing Linux to the hilt. As part of its growing commitment to Linux, he said IBM is offering the OS for its S/390 mainframes right down to its low-end Intel boxes, and is already working on bringing its broad portfolio of applications to Linux. However, given Microsoft's partnerships with so many vendors, its domination is extremely hard to crack - although the open source community may see it differently. Bramley reckons users may have benefited more over time if they'd been offered a single version of Unix to compete with Windows NT and now Windows 2000. He warned Bill Gates will not find the market so welcoming in the future as Linux steps up into this space. He added: "Microsoft is in for a serious battle because major players are hedging their bets with Linux. More and more companies are now riding both horses [NT and Linux] and in IBM's case the Microsoft horse is a bit uncomfortable." But Nicolas McGrath, group Windows marketing manager at Microsoft, said the market is merely seeing vendors jumping on a bandwagon. He said: "The reason it has such backing from many of our partners is because they all want to be first to market. They want to make money out of the OS by offering service and support." Most vendors wouldn't deny this. However, McGrath also dismissed Linux as having a limited business value. He said: "Linux is a niche OS at this moment in time. It's something for developers to tinker with. Enthusiasts who have no business or mission-critical solutions use it. It's a great hobbyist tool." He then claimed Linux lacks the flexibility, reliability, scalability and security that customers get from Windows. Rudiger Berlich, UK MD at vendor SuSE Linux, responded: "In some areas Linux may still be niche, but in others it's not. People are running their businesses on it, and for a while it's not been a hobbyists' tool." While admitting the current version of Linux doesn't scale well - without clustering - beyond four processor systems, he also defended its reliability and security, saying open source code means bugs will be seen and fixed faster. The difference between all this posturing now, as opposed to just a few months ago, is that it is set against a backdrop of hardware vendors making real commitments to the upstart software. As part of its commitment to the OS, Dell is already offering pre-installed Linux on some of its Intel-based PowerEdge servers. Meanwhile Compaq will be pre-loading the OS on its best-selling ProLiant range of servers. Both will use Red Hat's version of Linux. Not every user will be won over by the backing of tier one vendors who at the same time stand by their own OS and those of Microsoft. Linux will undeniably be adopted in certain markets ahead of others. However, few can deny it is changing the OS landscape.