From joke to curiosity to embraceable you: Our Linux is here to stay

Everywhere I turn, there it is. Nearly every vendor pitching me with a

story idea is embracing it. Programmers who don't already know it are

scurrying to learn. It's Linux, of course.

When Linux first appeared a number of years ago (the first kernel was

released in 1994), many of us in tech journalism and integrators in the

trenches scoffed. We had seen many operating systems come and go.

Whether it was DR-DOS, UCSD pSystem, OS/2, Pick, NeXT, EDX, CPM, GEM, or

a hundred others, they lit up the sky for a brief moment, then

disappeared.

Linux is different. It's got legs. It's here to stay.

What's different, relative to OS/2, is that Linux has drawn widespread

support. Support from hardware vendors, software houses, distributors,

and, especially, corporate IT executives. IBM has certainly anted up,

bringing Linux to just about every server line it sells.

Even Sun has seen the light. No longer just the company pitching Solaris

as an alternative to Windows, the company is now a staunch supporter of

Linux (http://wwws.sun.com/software/linux/), pitching it as the new

Windows alternative. It had to be a humbling experience for Sun's Scott

McNealy, but Sun is pitching itself as "a leader in enterprise products

and services and is bringing its expertise to Linux." Indeed, Sun is

offering both the Red Hat and SuSE Linux implementations.

Novell, purveyor of the once mighty NetWare operating system, saw the

future too, laying down more than $200 million to snap up SuSE Linux.

It's a repeat of the acquisition some years ago of Unix Systems

Laboratories; hopefully this move will meet with greater success.

Gartner, a market house that keeps track of such things, reported

recently that shipments of Linux-based servers hit 660,000 in 2003, up

from 425,000 in 2002. That's a quarter of today's server operating

system market. But hold on: Gartner expects that number hit 1.5 million

by 2008. By any standard, this is an impressive trend, one that even

free giveaway copies of Windows Server isn't going to stop.

No less a force than IBM chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano is fully on

board. During his speech at IBM's recent PartnerWorld conference in Las

Vegas, he said, "A few years ago, when we said Linux was ready for the

enterprise, it was considered a joke." He's joking no more. "Things have

changed."

But what, exactly?

It's fair to say that people first looked at Linux as the

anti-Microsoft, a way to get a computer up and running without writing a

check to Gates & Co. And that was true. Unfortunately, the product was

less than fully baked. But it had "buzz," something that other DOS and

Windows alternatives historically lacked.

For a while, there was talk of running Linux on every conceivable

platform, from mainframe to server, from desktop to handheld, even to

your TV's remote control unit. That didn't last long. Once Linux was

viewed as a server platform of demonstrable stability, the

anti-Microsoft feelings gave way to cost-justifiable applications.

Logic, at last, had overruled emotion, thank you very much.

Today, version 2.6 of the Linux source-code kernel is pretty darn solid,

and contains features targeting corporations, not just computer

engineering labs. Clustering and database support are sure to please

CIOs and IT directors seeking a failsafe environment for

mission-critical applications.

As for Microsoft, the race is on. Visual Studio and the entire .NET

environment represent not only technology, but business positioning.

Write in a standard language (C or C++) and the challenges of porting

that code base to Linux, while not insignificant, are certainly not

insurmountable. But develop in a Microsoft environment, and porting to

Linux becomes far more daunting. Not to say that it can't be done, but

safe to say that it can't be done without pain. And that's important for

keeping developers in the Microsoft camp.

So where are you? As recently as a year ago, many integrators were still

reluctant to invest resources in bringing Linux to its lineup. But even

a casual poll now tells me that the tide is changing. Everyone has moved

down the Linux path at least one step: Those contemplating Linux a year

ago have done it; those who said never are now contemplating.

Windows certainly is not going away. But it's fair to say that Linux has

moved past mere curiosity and has cemented its place as a viable

platform with broad-based support. The integrator that offers only

Windows and declines to offer Linux-based solutions may not fail, but

growth is no longer assured.

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