Editor Should Your Business Use Linux?

Linux is making waves. It's backed by all the big computer makers, and it's giving Bill Gates nightmares of being chased by annoying penguins - but is it right for your business?

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Microsoft Buys Great Plains

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Microsoft strikes out at Linux

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Tried, Guilty, Sentenced

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the ILOVEYOU Worm

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Our Web comes alive again


Actually, we have two very different questions here: Linux on the desktop, and Linux on the server. The answer to each is likely to be very different from one company to another.

To help you understand Linux, what it is and how you could use it, we have prepared a major Linux Article. Particularly look at the section about how other companies are using Linux. It contains links and articles.

Linux, as the only growing alternative to Windows, is of increasing concern to Microsoft - to the extent they have started advertising directly against it in Europe, and now Microsoft's President has finally come out and stated that Linux is the #1 threat to Windows.

Of most concern to Microsoft today is the server space. Linux accounts for over 30% of server shipments, second only to Windows NT/2000. Most of these server shipments would otherwise have gone to Windows NT/2000 - a massive economic impact. Microsoft publicly maintains Linux has a tiny share of the market - by comparing market share in dollars (Linux is nearly free).

Of future concern to Microsoft is Linux on the desktop. It won't be displacing Windows on PCs in established companies, but as those companies move to Web enabled applications it will be powering many desktop devices. In new, growing companies where cash is tight, Linux may also power the desktop PCs, saving hundreds of dollars per year per desktop.

Benefits for Business

For a Linux enthusiast, the biggest attraction is freedom, but for a business, the biggest attractions are cost and productivity. Linux ranges from nearly free to pretty inexpensive - depending on distribution. It's stability and speed contribute to productivity.

Microsoft warns that original cost is not a significant factor, that ongoing support costs are far more significant, and they are right, but it is exactly those ongoing support costs where Linux offers the greatest saving.

Security is another factor. We've all heard of the hundreds of millions of dollars in damage caused by The "Love Bug", Happy99, Melissa and many other fast moving viruses, worms and trojans. Linux is not subject to this kind of attack and will not be. See Microsoft Security Model.

Going beyond immediate concerns, please read our article on Microsoft's .NET initiative. This is what "Microsoft Future" holds for you. You may find you don't want to participate in that future.

Linux Maturity

Linux is a variety of Unix, a server powerhouse, so it's server abilities are very mature. With the release of the 2.4 kernel, it closes the low end enterprise gap targeted by Windows 2000 Data Center. For the high end enterprise space, neither Linux nor Windows need apply - Unix, AS/400 and S/390 own this space.

On the desktop, Linux is still immature, so it's great for some businesses, but not yet acceptable for others. Desktop applications are highly functional but don't yet have the polish Windows applications have. A lot of specialty software is not yet available in Linux versions.

The Linux community has extended the acceptability of Linux on the desktop by developing compatibility packages that allow most Windows software, including Microsoft Office, to be run on the Linux desktop with good performance. Of course the tight integration that makes Windows such a virus and security risk is not available.

When evaluating Linux for the desktop, a business should weigh the cost factors against software issues. If the software you need to run is available and acceptable, the savings will be very worthwhile, especially over a few years time. Both availability and functionality will improve rapidly with time.

A huge library of business software is being ported from Unix, especially now that Caldera "owns" the SCO Unix development community. Lots of Windows software will be coming across as soon as Borland's Delphi development environment comes out for Linux (this year). Meanwhile, the Linux development community is hard at work on hundreds of products. Even some OS/2 software is being ported.

If, on the other hand, you expect to just drop in a Linux workstation and have it perfectly replace a Windows environment you've been perfecting for years (like Los Angeles Times writer Mark Kellner recently did), you will definitely have issues.

If your business is heavily dependent on the automation and integration features of Windows, Linux isn't for you - but please, keep your anti-virus software up-to-the-minute and train your users on security measures.

When evaluating Linux for the server, a business should chose Linux by default, selecting another server only if there is a compelling reason to do so. These reasons are explained in our Linux article.

Won't Microsoft Just Crush Linux?

They'll attack Linux, but I don't think even they expect to do a whole lot of damage. I wrote an editorial on that subject in June 2000. Market conditions are far different from when they moved to crush OS/2 and other superior products, and the very nature of Linux development and distribution negates many of their methods.

Microsoft's weapon against OS/2 was starving it for software by threatening developers with denial of information essential to get around Windows bugs and "features". This was extremely effective, eliminating all major software developers, but will have little effect on Linux. There just aren't any major Windows software developers left, and most Linux developers simply aren't interested in Windows.

One of the few Windows developers left with any name recognition is Corel, current owner of WordPerfect. Corel made a major effort to escape from Windows, issuing WordPerfect Office and Corel Draw for Linux. Microsoft, noting Corel's delicate financial condition, "invested" $150 million in Corel, resulting in an immediate cut in Linux development in favor of .NET. Effective, but there just aren't many plays like this.

Now that Microsoft is poised, by the purchase of Great Plains, to crush the Windows business management and financial applications markets, as well as much of the small business e-commerce market, we will see desperate companies trying to escape to Linux. For most it will be too late, but it will bring some needed business applications to Linux.

Won't Microsoft Just "Embrace and Extend" Linux?

I've said a lot of things about Microsoft, but I've never said they were suicidal- nor have I said they are stupid. Microsoft competes poorly in areas where they can't leverage their monopolies. Endorsing Linux would be about the stupidest thing they could do.

Their ability to corrupt Linux is held in check by the GPL (the copyright license for Linux code). The GPL is designed to infect everything it touches, so Microsoft would have to make public any code integrating their software with Linux.

As long as Microsoft can maintain the "nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft" mystique, they will have major market share. Their best course is to try to create new monopolies based on the old ones (see .NET).

Installing and Configuring Linux

A basic installation of Linux as an office desktop is often easier than installing Windows (depending on distribution selected). Of course, since most Windows users have never installed Windows, and wouldn't have a clue how to do so, that isn't a meaningful comparison for many.

On the other hand, configuring Linux for specific purposes and installing specialty software packages can be daunting to even a technical person.

A business should have Linux installations done by a person or company well experienced in Linux. This will cost some money up front, but will save a lot of time, and plenty of money in the long run. Configured right, a Linux box is going to stay that way, for years, without much attention.

You should always insist on complete documentation of the installation and how it was done so it can be duplicated easily, even by less experienced persons.

Alternatively, you can simply purchase Linux appliances, like the Cobalt Cube servers, completely configured and ready to run. Appliances are available for a number of different applications (file and print, DSN/DHCP, firewall & Internet access, RAS (Remote Access Server, NAS (Network Attached Storage), e-mail server, etc.).

Would We Use Linux in Our Office?

Servers: We already use Linux servers. Desktop: If the alternative was Windows, you bet we would - Linux is fully competitive with Windows - but we run OS/2, and we'll have to be dragged off that kicking and screaming. Sorry, the best desktop is still the best desktop.

Conclusion

Linux is ready now as the preferred server operating system for any business that hasn't backed itself into a corner. Linux on the desktop is viable now for many businesses, but not all. It's applicability will be improving quickly and steadily. In either position, Linux can save a business a lot of money.

Whether or not you chose Linux for your computers, you'll be using it in other ways - even if you're a rabid Bill Gates fan. Linux (small, fast, modular, open source code, modifiable, reliable, royalty free) stands to thrash Windows (huge, sluggish, monolithic, closed source, unchangeable, "blue screen", expensive) in a very big way for TV set top boxes, cell phones, handheld devices, wrist watches (done) and embedded devices of all kinds.

©Andrew Grygus - Automation Access - www.aaxnet.com - aax@aaxnet.com
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