Vendors share Linux success, caveats

A few open source-friendly vendors presented their outlooks on the role and future of Linux at Tuesday’s Real World Linux Conference and Expo – but not everyone had the same message to share with attendees.

The conference, which opened Monday 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 morning 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.

However, he pointed out that this solution “works in some instances,” and projects and workgroups should be chosen with caution. Large, transient workgroups with finite application service requirements are the ideal test case, he said.

If the return on investment (ROI) was really that self-evident, Sissons said, “Linux adoption would be more wide-spread – 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.

IBM, however, has a different take. At a media briefing Tuesday afternoon, Chris Pratt, manager of strategic initiatives at IBM Canada in Markham, Ont., said Linux has now moved in from the edge to the higher-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 – but the cost benefit is where it all started, and “cost savings continue to drive adoption and deployment,” alongside other advantages such as reliability. Smaller companies are “definitely faster in adoption,” he said.

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

Chief Information Officer 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 implementation of the new point of sale (POS) system. The system is based on the RedHat 7.3 Linux distribution, by IBM Business Partner Chelsea Market Systems, which 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,” said Lynas. “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.