Why Microsoft/Novell is good for Linux

What is probably the most controversial partnership in the history of open source may give Linux a chance to shine

Being aware, as I am, of Microsoft's monopolisation endeavours, coupled with working in a Linux world inherently mistrustful of the software giant, it may seem strange that I believe the Microsoft/Novell agreement will be great for Linux. But I do.

Why? Interoperability between Microsoft and Linux has been one the greatest challenges for software publishers and system integrators in the Linux world. The Microsoft/Novell agreement will no doubt help to bridge the gap and make it easier for software buyers to run both Windows and Linux-based systems. But it is not only integration — vital though it is — that I believe will propel Linux further into the mainstream. It is Microsoft's endorsement of Linux, their yielding 'if we can't beat them, join them' attitude that floods Linux in limelight. The market's gaze has never been so drawn to Linux and now is our time to stand and be counted.

The Linux world has always been a very volatile and dynamic one. Until 2002, in the early years of commercial use, Linux was seen as anarchic. It was followed by the techno geek with the same enthusiasm that we saw in the adoption of Unix, before its commercialisation by each of the hardware vendors.

That all changed with the release of Enterprise versions of Suse and Red Hat. These industrial-strength platforms with their hardware and software vendor certifications, regular updates and extended lifecycles provided a Linux platform to which many companies felt secure in trusting their server infrastructure.

So began the mass adoption of Linux — at least, in the Unix world. Enterprise Linux has made significant gains as a replacement for ageing Unix systems, but then so has Microsoft.

For Linux to capitalise on the exposure afforded by the Microsoft/Novell agreement, we must confront the confusion surrounding the various distributions, the perceived lack of support, and to a much lesser extent the SCO/IBM lawsuits and patent violation disinformation.

Although Red Hat certainly won the marketing battle, there has been little to differentiate between the core offerings of theirs and Suse's operating systems. Partners and hardware manufacturers, however, seem to have alternated their support unpredictably between the two; in certain cases, dropping them entirely in favour of one of the lesser distributions such as Mandriva or even a community-based system such as Debian. If the HPs and IBMs of the IT world don't know which horse to back, what confidence can the punter have?

Moreover, few customers really understood, when they purchased Red Hat or Suse, whether they were buying a licence, software subscription or support. Oracle's announcement, that it would provide a locally compiled version of Red Hat Linux with Oracle support, stripped bare the Linux commercial proposition so customers understand it. It made clear that what you got out of the box was an update subscription and operating-system support.

I don't think that the Oracle proposition is particularly viable at the moment, or that it will hurt Red Hat or Suse in the long run. It appears more of a spoiling tactic aimed at reducing the reliance of Oracle on Red Hat but, irrespective of that, it has lifted the veil on Enterprise Linux distributions and empowered the user.

Users now understand what the support from Red Hat and Suse delivers and what the options are to extend this. They are increasingly aware of the professional support organisations established to supplement the operating system support — a network of professional services organisations akin to those in the Microsoft and Unix worlds.

Ultimately, Linux is growing up. Linux has built a foundation and extensive customer base. It has proved that it can be a player in the short term, and shown that it is a viable replacement for proprietary Unix. The Microsoft/Novell deal shouldn't be seen as a threat but a chance to shine.

Biography: Peter Dawes-Huish is chief executive of open source services specialist LinuxIT Europe.