For Linux, it

Earlier this month, in a small, unassuming town located about two hours east of Toronto, something happened that would’ve seemed unthinkable only a few years ago. The world’s foremost Unix supporter and the loudest, most vocal opponent of just about everything else opened up a training centre.

Only this Sun Microsystems facility in Belleville, Ont., the first of its kind in Canada for the company, is dedicated to Linux.

If that doesn’t seem so surprising, then consider what Doug Michels, the former president and CEO of the old Unix stalwart SCO had to say about Linux during an interview with Computerworld US in 1999:

“Linux didn’t break any new ground,” he said. “They took the [application programming interfaces] of Unix and re-engineered that lightweight kernel that implemented those APIs. Linux is just a kernel … but it’s nice, elegant and small, easy to understand. So now we’ve got some punk young kids who’ve taken and engineered pieces around the Unix.” He also scorned Linux as a “religion” and said “very few” companies were buying into it.

Today, SCO’s Unix business is owned by Linux vendor Caldera, IBM is spending a billion U.S. dollars on pushing Linux in the enterprise, and, such is the state of Linux euphoria that rumours are afloat (and even half-believed by some) that Microsoft might soon sell Linux-based products.

Admittedly, at around the same time as Michels made his comments, Sun officials were talking about “embracing” Linux, making it interoperable with Solaris, and the company has never positioned itself as a foe to the open source community per se – witness StarOffice. But I’m betting it didn’t envision itself opening a school to train partners on Sun’s own Linux distribution either.

In short, the punk kids showed a lot more staying power than the Unix gatekeepers gave them credit for. And today those former skeptics are all happily playing in the Linux muck, telling their customers to be open-minded about the platform’s possibilities. In short, they’ll continue to fight Windows at the low-end of the server spectrum, but simply co-opt Linux.

These are interesting times for the open source platform. It easily and rapidly filled up its Web server niche (in conjunction with Apache) throughout the 1990s, and it appeared to be making some mighty impressive inroads. But that era of invincibility is largely over, and Linux enthusiasts now face the task of getting serious about cracking the enterprise market.

That won’t be easy. Consider: one of Linux’s long-held claims to fame was its reliability – it simply didn’t crash, supporters said. And the price point was certainly attractive.

But last month, research firm IDC released the results of a study that concluded running Windows is actually cheaper than Linux in some scenarios, namely in print and file serving. As much as 22 per cent cheaper. That’s because the amount of time required to “care and feed” Linux, as one analyst phrased it, adds up. And, of course, there is Microsoft’s unlimited ISV partner community, and its ease-of-use.

In other words, migrating from Windows to Linux doesn’t make sense if the time it takes to get everyone up to speed cancels savings. The option becomes more attractive if the in-house resources are available, but that will only happen as more people become familiar with Linux. Whether this snowballing effect takes hold and helps spread Linux throughout the enterprise remains to be seen, and is the most important question facing Linux distributors today.

And in small-town Ontario, the snow has started falling.