Power to the penguin

Linux is gaining grounds as steps are taken to over-come the scalability stumbling block. Key issues remain, however, as Microsoft continues to be a rival platform.
Written by Mark A. Evans, Contributor on

Now that the Linux operating system is being embraced by the likes of IBM and Dell Computer, the darling of hobbyists is positioned to challenge Windows on several fronts.

According to International Data Corp., Linux's growth in 1999 outpaced that of Microsoft's Windows NT. Linux had 25 percent of the server market in 1999, up from 16 percent in 1998, while Windows NT's market share stayed at 38 percent for the second year in a row.

One reason for NT's static market share is that some enterprises postponed upgrading to new versions of Windows in anticipation of Windows 2000, which was released in February 2000. It's too soon to tell what impact Windows 2000 will have on Linux's market share. For now, Linux providers are seizing their day in the sun by making headlines of their own. Red Hat and VA Linux Systems have enjoyed record-breaking initial public offerings, while companies like TurboLinux are getting sizable cash infusions from the likes of Dell and Intel.

Linux owes its popularity to several factors: It's available for free or for a minimal fee, many consider it to be more reliable than Windows NT and the Linux source code is open to anyone who wants to modify it for their own applications.

Thriving in a low-end market

According to Marty Larsen, director of professional services for VA Linux Systems, which sells Linux systems and services, Linux is ideal for the burgeoning small business market. "If a small start-up company happens to have an old 486 computer, they can build a pretty robust Linux-based server. It's free and it's a more stable environment than Windows," he says.

While Linux is making inroads in the huge low-end Web server market, the operating system (OS) does have its drawbacks. Limited scalability, for example, has left Linux out of the running for customers that run large networks, and limits its appeal to companies that want an OS that can keep pace with growing needs.

The scalability stumbling block may soon be removed. According to Paul Kube, vice chairman, computer science and engineering at University of California, San Diego, "Linux was developed for the Intel PC architecture, which doesn't scale well for large systems. That may change with the introduction of Intel's new IA-64 chip." He also notes that IBM is reportedly developing enhancements to Linux that allow it to run on large IBM servers, and programs are underway at SGI to get high-end graphics into Linux. On the other end of the spectrum, Linux applications are being configured for small, low-power devices like PDAs.

Will Windows open?

The easy availability of the Linux source code is considered to be a key element in its success. As Kube explains, "You don't have to wait for the vendor to see changes. You can be a market of one and customize the code yourself. With the core development processes open as well, any number of people can contribute suggestions. It brings to bear potentially an unlimited amount of intelligence and talent."

While most Unix vendors consider Linux (which was derived from Unix) to be complementary to their own OS, Microsoft sees Linux as a potential competitor to Windows NT.

Some have wondered if Microsoft might respond by making the Windows source code available to all comers.

According to Aubrey Edwards, a Microsoft product manager, the company does make Windows source code available to the education market. As for the rest of their customer base, she says, "Are broad customers asking for this? No. If you think about what an IT guy has to do all day long, he doesn't have time to pour over Microsoft source code. He has real world problems to solve."

Larsen responds, "It's true that as an IT guy, I wouldn't pour over source code. What I poured over was the incredible amount of pain I went through trying to get answers to relatively basic, important questions about the OS. Having the OS source code helps people in the IT environment get answers to support questions much faster."

Edwards stops short of saying that Microsoft would lock away all of its source code forever. "We are working with customers to understand what their requirements are for source code access," she says.

"Any kind of concession by Microsoft will only help Linux, and there's probably no advantage to Microsoft if Linux succeeds," observes Bill Claybrook, platform research director at Aberdeen Group. "Microsoft has invested so much money in its products, I doubt that they'd consider releasing their source code."

Larsen suggests one possible scenario, "If Microsoft breaks up and different application groups have to go out on their own, some would lend themselves very well to being available on other platforms. Excel, for example, is one of their better programs. Everyone would benefit from it being available on other platforms," he says.

A few vendors, such as Santa Clara Organization and VMware, have developed software that allows some degree of interoperability among Linux and other operating systems. However, unless Microsoft releases the Windows source code, any hope of true Linux-Windows interoperability is dim.

While it's likely that competitive pressure will ultimately lead some Linux vendors to make the source code for their version of Linux proprietary, much of Linux's appeal lies in its populist roots.

According to Claybrook, "The key to Linux being successful is for companies like Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Compaq and Sun, to not try to wipe out the smaller companies by distributing their own versions of Linux. The energy behind Linux comes from the huge group of open source developers. The best way to put a damper on this great movement is for some large vendor to take it over and go down their own path."

Mark A. Evans is Managing Director of Deloitte & Touche's Technology & Communications Group.

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