Linux 1999: it was a very good year

“Yes, but…” is a phrase that gets heard a lot in discussions about the Linux operating system.

Yes, experts say, Linux’s prospects have grown dramatically in the latter half of the 90s, last year in particular, when even TV talk show hosts could be heard uttering its name. But that success is still limited to a few niche areas within IT.

Yes, mainstream software vendors are racing to build Linux-compatible applications. But, observers add, that may just be a case of keeping up with the Joneses.

And yes, Linux has a strong, vocal and professional army of developers busy taking matters in their own hands, making all kinds of tweaks and improvements to the OS. But, that may all be for nought if other operating systems – essentially Windows NT or Unix – can remain strong.

“It’s a picture that’s skewed,” admitted George Weiss, vice-president and research director with Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

Though there has been no shortage of vendor endorsements, and despite the success of the Linux-Apache combination in the Web hosting arena combined with the rapidly maturing Linux distributors such as Red Hat and Caldera, the future remains cloudy, Weiss said.

“All of these factors have raised the Linux decibel level probably several fold higher than it was last year at this time. But having said that, I have not yet detected that there’s been any corporate enterprise bandwagon effect, so to speak.”

In other words, many enterprise users are still leery. And therein lies the dilemma for the so-called Linux community. Even ardent supporters don’t deny that there’s obstacles ahead.

“There’s still lots of areas where Linux can improve…the biggest technical improvements will happen as it goes into the big iron, support for large systems, for data warehousing and clustering software,” said Evan Leibovitch, a partner of Brampton, Ont.-based Linux development firm Starnix Ltd. and co-founder of the Canadian Linux User Exchange, a national user group.

Leibovitch points to work being done on Linux by SGI – well known for its supercomputing abilities – as proof the OS has lots of potential.

Scalabity isn’t the only issue facing the OS, Leibovitch noted. Linux’s impact on the desktop has been minimal. And he’d like to see interoperability standards, something that’s currently in the works among distributors, applied to all branded versions.

For him, watching the competition scramble is one of the most entertaining aspects of the Linux movement. “What you’re going to start to see is companies take on Linux as a legitimate competitive target…competitive forces are causing people to shine a light on Linux,” Leibovitch said.

Bob Young, president and CEO of Red Hat Software Inc. in Research Triangle Park, N.C., a company that started the year privately held and ended it as a high-profile, publicly-owned entity, said software makers will drive Linux forward.

“The actual impact of [their Linux] announcements are only just now being felt, so the availability of, for example, Oracle 8i in a properly supported version only started shipping about two months ago. The same is true of IBM’s DB2 technology,” Young said.

It also doesn’t hurt that companies like Red Hat are perceived to be strengthening, which gives nervous enterprise users some assurance that if they purchase a branded Linux now, they can continue to get support 10 or 20 years down the road, he added.

Whatever the reasons, there’s little doubt software makers are getting wise to the currency associated with Linux.

Corel Corp. may be the Linux player with the biggest profile in Canada, but they’re not alone. Last November, Richmond Hill, Ont.-based e-com software vendor Valu-net Corp. released a Linux-enabled version of CPAC (Credit Payment Authorized Component), its e-commerce transaction software.

The timing of the release couldn’t have been more fortunate, given the slew of Linux announcements made at Comdex, and the overall year-end tech stock rally that included Linux companies, admitted David Lucatch, Valu-Net’s president and CEO. “We were ready by mid-November to make an announcement, and the Linux market was just heating up.”

Though Lucatch is obviously impressed with Linux’s value for the money, and its efficient development model, he’s not so convinced that Canadian small and medium-sized companies, most of which are current users of NT, will rush to embrace the OS.

“If something goes wrong, or there’s an integration issue, who are you going to call on? Is there going to be support?

“And Microsoft, as much as they’re the walking giant of the industry, do put out products that allow companies to expand their base…the fact is, they keep coming out with products that perform will under fire.”

Gartner Group envisions a future where Linux, as the prodigal son of Unix, will come home – for good. “Eventually the Unix vendors that have less standing will have subsumed Linux into their Unix strategy in some way that would be a top to bottom Unix or Unix-like umbrella or offering,” Weiss said.

“Then Linux [won’t be] some kind of strange animal that operates outside the boundaries of the current OS that they offer. Linux would become what Unix was hoping to become: a standard framework OS, and a layered application that can be open source or not.”

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