Linux takes diverse routes to business success

Demand for Linux is stronger than ever, say the companies pushing open-source software at this year's Linux Expo UK. But one size does not fit all

The dot-com boom may be over, but the demand for Linux is still strong in business -- a fact not lost on the computing giants present at this week's Linux Expo UK in London. Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Sun and others gathered to show off their different strategies for embedding Linux into everything from desktops at chain restaurants to high-end corporate mainframes. This is all driven by customer demand, the companies said, although they said there has been no single reason why companies choose Linux. "It's not a single solution to a single problem," said Iain Stephen, UK Industry Standard Server director for HP's Compaq subsidiary. Significantly, Sun was a newcomer to this year's show having rolled out its Linux strategy in the past year, while HP made a return appearance after giving London a miss in 2001. Another new presence was UnitedLinux, formed in the spring by Linux distributors Conectiva, SuSE, Turbolinux and SCO Group (then Caldera). The four companies will distribute an enterprise-focused operating system developed primarily by SuSE. Linux is based on an open-source licence, the GNU General Public License (GPL), which means that developers can freely alter and redistribute the software, as long as they return their improvements to the community. Starting as a hobby by independent programmers, it became popular for servers during the dot-com boom, but is not as yet as well entrenched in the computer industry as the older Unix and Windows operating systems. IBM remains the big spender of the corporate Linux world, spending about $1bn (£640m) a year in various Linux projects and integrating the operating system across all its servers. But HP was keen to point out that it, too, is working on powerful Linux servers and is actively involved in Linux development. Linux and the 'HP Way'
HP inherited its main Linux expertise when it acquired Compaq, and now has a base of about 500 engineers in Austin, Texas, which forms the heart of its Linux endeavours. HP's David Mosberger is leading the charge on developing Linux for Intel's Itanium server processors, as well as helping out efforts with file systems and connecting to printers. "One guy said that HP now most closely resembles IBM in its Linux approach," said HP's Stephen. However, HP takes a more platform-agnostic approach to Linux than does IBM, Stephen said. "We don't have a WebSphere," he said, referring to IBM's e-business infrastructure software. "We have no intellectual property tied up in this. We just make it work properly." HP is the staunchest advocate of Intel's Itanium server chip, which Compaq co-developed. HP is standardising its higher-end servers on Itanium, and is leading the push to port the Linux operating system and applications to the platform. Right now investment banks are HP's biggest Linux customers, as they look to upgrade their Unix systems, which tie companies to a particular hardware platform. For these customers, the Linux software isn't as important as the fact that the Intel hardware on which it runs is so much cheaper, according to HP. Large retailers are switching to Linux for the same reason. Over the next year, HP expects that the government and education markets could make up a larger part of sales, with many governments currently considering switching to Linux. Riling Linux fans
Sun only joined the Linux fray comparatively recently, and unlike HP and IBM, will not be offering Linux on platforms with more than two processors; for those it is steering customers to its Ultrasparc-based systems running Sun's own Solaris version of Unix. The company is also offering desktop Linux for point-of-sale terminals and educational and government institutions. This strategy has received some criticism from industry analysts and Linux aficionadoes alike, and at the expo, the Linux-friendly attendees showed their disdain. When an audience was asked who supported IBM's Linux strategy, most people raised their hands; but when they were asked who thought Sun's way was a good idea, almost no one responded. "I think IBM really had their knives out on that one," said Simon Tindall, Sun's UK business manager for volume products. Sun argues that the biggest opportunities for Linux are in inexpensive Intel-based servers and desktop systems that compete directly with Microsoft's Windows. SCO Group recently changed its name from Caldera to highlight its revenue-producing SCO Unix products, but the company says it has made headway in converting low-tech businesses such as food distributors and automobile dealerships to the Linux cause. SCO, which has a large presence in the UK and across Europe, deals with many large, sprawling businesses such as retail chains that have a large number of desktops to cope with -- for example, the Dixons electrical retailer runs on a SCO Unix platform. A recent success story was a large automobile dealership in Scotland that switched 500 email users across 160 branch offices from an ageing Exchange server to the Linux-based Caldera Volution Messaging Server, saving about £80,000 from the cost of a new Exchange system. The dealership found Microsoft's restrictive licensing policy to be a major factor in making the switch. Microsoft licensing pushes customers into committing to regular upgrades, but SCO argues that this is against the interests of many businesses. "Look at Dixons: they have not upgraded for nine years, and have no plans to upgrade for another two or three years," said SCO's regional director of the UK and Ireland, Richard Perkins. "That would never work with a Microsoft contract." SCO is a member of UnitedLinux, and will distribute the same operating system as other members when it arrives later this year. The company plans to leverage its cozy position with a large network of resellers around the world to compete with Red Hat, maker of the dominant Linux operating system distribution, as well as other UnitedLinux members. Red Hat, for example, is at a disadvantage where it comes to resellers because it sells its service contracts direct, according to SCO, which does no direct selling. "People want a direct relationship with the reseller they bought from," Perkins said. SuSE, based in Germany, is taking the route of a more traditional Linux start-up and is working with big partners such as IBM, who can provide technical support for businesses anywhere. SuSE's main strengths are in the German market, where it has recently struck deals to convert large sections of the German government to its platform. Red Hat, for its part, was conspicuous by its absence. It is by far the biggest Linux company, even counting the four combined members of UnitedLinux, but skipped London this year in favour of the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in Frankfurt, Germany, at the end of this month. "That is SuSE's back yard. That's why (we) are focusing on the German show," said a Red Hat spokesman. Red Hat, like SuSE, has been pursuing big companies with a custom-designed version of its software. Red Hat's Advanced Server, and UnitedLinux's distribution, developed by SuSE, are both updated less frequently so that it can be maintained more easily in a large organisation. Red Hat is also planning an Advanced Workstation for next year. Business clearly had a bigger presence at the expo than last year, with the relatively small venue dominated by large stands set up by IBM, HP SCO and others. Non-profits and independent organisations such as KDE and the Gnome Foundation, which create Linux desktop software, were also there, but concentrated towards the edges of the show. Nevertheless, companies insist that the money-making and the more altruistic sides of Linux remain neutral toward one another. "Twelve months ago there were a lot of technical people running Linux businesses, and now there are more and more business people being brought in to show them how to make money," said Gregory Blepp, who handles SuSE's international business. "That doesn't mean they're against the GPL or free software. There is always a discussion about how we can makey money and still comply with the GPL."

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