Not everyone singing Linux praises

Several open source-friendly vendors recently presented their outlooks on the role and future of Linux at the Real World Linux Conference and Expo – but attendees heard different messages.

Much of the conference, which took place at Toronto’s Metro Convention Centre, focused on promoting Linux and other open source operating systems as a lower-cost alternative to proprietary platforms.

But Gordon Sissons, vice-president of technology for Sun Microsystems of Canada Inc. in Markham, Ont., tempered that view with his own comments during his session, NT to Linux – Making the Net Work.

He said the perception of Linux always offering a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) than Windows is a “myth,” adding that “the real costs revolve around sustaining the operating system, third-party software” and initially migrating from NT to Linux – an undertaking which “may be an inhibitor” to companies that are concerned with the bottom line, even though they might predict lower TCO in the long run.

According to Sissons, the real question IT administrators face when deciding between Linux and Windows is not “which is cheaper?” but “which is smarter?”

“Businesses need a really good reason to change over. Without a breakthrough strategy, there is not a business motivator to move from NT to Linux,” he said.

Sissons suggested one way to “make migration more palatable” is to tap into a technology such as Sun’s thin client desktop, SunRay, which will help reduce the costs of support and professional services, software licensing, and hardware and network costs. That way, migration costs – productivity, training, contingency and one-time services – can be absorbed without increasing the TCO.

But if the return on investment was really that self-evident, Sissons said, “Linux adoption would be more widespread – but we see that it’s more targeted,” focusing on applications at the edge of networks, such as firewalls, Web servers and network file servers.

IDC Canada Ltd. analyst Alan Freedman was not surprised at Sun’s cautious approach to Linux. “This is new for Sun,” Freedman said, considering the vendor’s mantra, going back to when it started as a workstation company, revolved around “one platform, completely binary compatible all the way up and down line.”

The first instance of Sun “breaking the mould” was in 2000 when the vendor bought Linux appliance maker Cobalt Networks, Freedman explained. Since then, Sun has introduced Linux boxes that run on Intel processors.

Dipping toes into Linux waters “contradicts [Sun’s] message of years past,” when the firm felt its competitive advantage was its alphabet soup approach to operating systems and platforms, Freedman added. “With all that in mind, it behooves Sun to wade slowly into the operating environment market.” If it’s something different – regardless of whether it’s an open source or other OS, he said, Sun will no doubt be much more cautious than other vendors.

“They don’t want to risk alienating their install base by completely switching their message,” he said.

IBM Corp., however, has a different take. At a conference panel discussion, Chris Pratt, manager of strategic initiatives at IBM Canada in Markham, Ont., said Linux has now moved from the edge of the network toward more adoption in the high-performance, mission-critical application space – in the financial and insurance services, industrial, education, government and life sciences, as well as communications and distribution/retail.

Pratt agreed that Linux adoption is not just about costs. “Linux is free if your time is worthless,” he said. However, the cost benefit is where Linux growth all started, and “cost savings continue to drive adoption and deployment,” alongside other advantages such as reliability and horizontal scalability. Smaller companies are “definitely faster in adoption,” he said.

Freedman pointed out that IBM’s message is not necessarily that Linux is right for all instances and all customers, but that the open source alternative “can be right, and should be evaluated in many circumstances.” IDC research has shown that customers are increasingly purchasing platforms based on usage and workload issues, he said. “They make their first decisions based on what kind of job or business task needs to get done, what kind of application it is, how it runs best, how the platform would fit into infrastructure, and whether it can be made to fit,” Freedman noted.

Clothing and footware retailer Mark’s Work Wearhouse Ltd. is one IBM customer that has migrated its store environment over to Linux.

CIO Robin Lynas said the company’s new store costs have been reduced by 30 per cent, and maintenance expenses have dropped by 50 per cent since the new POS system, based on the RedHat 7.3 Linux distribution, was implemented by IBM Business Partner Chelsea Market Systems (acquired last year by Retek Systems).

“One of the big things for a guy like me is I have to try to deliver more for less,” Lynas said. “Some of the stuff these guys are doing for me are amazing.”

Training cycles were cut from two days to half a day, help desk calls are down, and IT support staff requirements are decreasing, Lynas said. “Our old system was solid but it was tough to navigate. The key for us is that this is so easy to use.”

Among the open system benefits Mark’s Work Wearhouse has experienced are the ability to run applications on any platform and operating system, and the fact that applications are database-independent.