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Opinion: Is Open Source the New Normal?

As the Desktop Linux Summit gets underway in San Diego – on the heels of last month's enterprise-oriented LinuxWorld – it appears that Microsoft is swimming the wrong way against the tide of history. Not that history hasn’t been kind to Redmond. Just two decades ago, Microsoft led the rebel alliance that turned computing on its head by introducing the notion of a commodity-priced operating system running on separate commodity-priced hardware. Now, Microsoft is the Empire to be toppled. The operating system is becoming a layer of code that exists, for all intents and purposes, in the public domain. And Microsoft’s responses to this shift – and threat to its core business – have been tepid and misguided.

Microsoft ignores a large chunk of its own base at its own peril. Already, two out of five enterprise Windows shops also run Linux, according to last month’s ENT survey of almost 800 IT sites. This is a number that can’t be ignored. These sites are not small development shops taking advantage of freeware, either. The survey finds that it’s larger sites that are leaning to Linux. Enterprises running Linux have an average of 625 servers in their organizations, versus the overall average of 400 for the entire survey group. Forty percent of Linux users have IT budgets exceeding a million dollars a year, versus 30% overall.

This confirms that Linux and open-source are the “new normal” at enterprise sites. The survey also shows that the appeal of Linux extends well beyond its initial “free” price, and may be more related to ease of use, manageability, scalability, and application availability. Of course, there may also be a sizeable segment of IT managers that are simply fed up with Microsoft’s licensing dictates.

Microsoft has two arguments against open source software. First, it states that free software isn’t really free. Second, Redmond claims that sophisticated enterprise applications need a solid base of support. Both arguments are correct. But is Redmond fighting the wrong battle? Granted, the IT world is currently obsessed with cost containment and return on investment – and the less investment required, the better. But the battle between the two computing platforms is shaping up in the enterprise datacenter, where up-front costs are only a small piece of the pie.

For example, Microsoft recently trotted out an IDC study – funded by Redmond – which undeniably showed lower cost of ownership for Windows servers versus Linux. Read between the lines of the report, however, and things don’t look too promising in the long-term struggle against Linux. The study reasons that Linux costs about 20% more than Windows because of available skills staffing costs. Simply put, there are plenty of MCSEs and MCPs out there. IDC adds, however, that the growing body of tools, services, and software developing around Linux may even up these costs over the next few years. System management tool vendors, for example, are entering the Linux arena. “In most cases, these vendors are treating Linux like ‘another version of Unix,’” says IDC. The analyst firm cites examples of products that either support Linux today or will support Linux in the near future: BMC Patrol, CA Unicenter, HP OpenView, IBM Tivoli, and Novell ZENworks.

Lots of challenges – what’s Redmond to do? Start a Microsoft distribution of Linux? Microsoft has cautiously extended the tip of its big toe into Linux, and actually bought exhibit space at the recent LinuxWorld in New York. The Linux community reciprocated Microsoft's peace gesture by awarding Microsoft's Services for Unix 3.0 as the Best System Integration Software. However, traffic at Microsoft's booth appeared to be light, indicating Redmond has to work a little harder if it wants to snare the interest of Open Sourcies.

Not that the offers Microsoft was pitching to the open source world were that bad. The award-winning item, Microsoft's Windows Services for Unix 3.0, enables those with Unix systems to reuse their code on Interix subsystems technology, running on a Windows server. Interestingly, along with Solaris, HP-UX and AIX, the software also supports Red Hat Linux.

Microsoft also highlighted its “Shared Source” initiative at the expo, in which selected customers and partners are granted access to pieces of Microsoft source code. The program urges developers and users to “move to the middle” between commercial and open-source providers. However, the only two classes of Microsoft software that are granted the full range of open-source rights – including code modification, distribution, and commercial packaging – are C#/JScript/CLI implementations and the .NET Passport Manager.

Lastly, Microsoft is pitching its ASP.NET environment at the Linux community, offering server-side Web technology. In fact, a survey from Netcraft finds that 1 percent of ASP.NET sites are running Linux, a percentage that is sure to grow. The bottom line is that Linux and other open-source servers will be part of many .NET Web services environments.

Prior to LinuxWorld, there was considerable excitement stirred around Meta Group's prediction that Microsoft would be shipping Linux-based applications by next year. Microsoft quickly scoffed at the notion, but the idea of Microsoft apps running on Linux is not that far-fetched. Such offerings would open up Microsoft products to worlds that were previously restricted. Imagine the possibilities – SQL Server up on a mainframe, Unix, or iSeries box, for example.

Joe McKendrick is an independent consultant and author, specializing in surveys, technology research and white papers.

About the Author

Joe McKendrick is an independent consultant and author specializing in surveys, technology research and white papers. He's a contributing writer for ENTmag.com.

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