For every Linux lover there's a detractor

The shifting sands of IT have thrown up Linux and open source as a respectable and mature alternative to closed-source options from Microsoft and Unix vendors. Computerworld spoke to organisations that have thrown their hat into the open source ring and those which remain sceptical.

The shifting sands of IT have thrown up Linux and open source as a respectable and mature alternative to closed-source options from Microsoft and Unix vendors. Computerworld spoke to organisations that have thrown their hat into the open source ring and those which remain sceptical.

At opposite ends of the scale in terms of size and markets, solutions provider Asterisk of Auckland and multinational IT giant IBM have both staked out a future for themselves in the open source market.

Asterisk specialises in Linux solutions, providing support, consultancy and turnkey products, with a staff of 10; like its mainstay product, Asterisk is a young company, three years of age.

IBM, on the other hand, is the archetypal IT services company, traditional and with its roots firmly in closed source; when IBM announced two years back that it would support Linux to the tune of $US1 billion, it drew more than a few surprised comments from industry observers.

IBM has contributed plenty to the open source movement in general, and Linux in particular. Developer tools, libraries, high-performance file system (JFS) and plenty of other work on the Linux kernel itself bear testimony to IBM’s hands-on commitment to open source, on top of funding many development projects.

A spokesman for IBM said the recent Air New Zealand contract win was a “ground breaker” and that “the Linux floodgates have opened — the phones of our regional managers have been ringing off the hook with enquiries from customers who’ve until now adopted a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude”.

Savings on IT costs are cited by IBM as the main reason for customer interest in Linux. Another reason for interest in open source is that customers are becoming concerned about their data being locked into proprietary formats, which in turn could force them into costly licensing deals or upgrades in the futures. Open source combined with open standards in solutions delivered by a reputable vendor appeals to many of IBM’s customers.

The spokesman claims that any open source product or solution delivered will be “as well supported as any other one from IBM” through trained support engineers with Linux and open source experience.

Asterisk head Chris Hegan says that while his firm’s customers generally are “enthusiastic embracers of alternatives” and thus ready to consider non-traditional solutions, lately enquiries from more conservative organisations have started to roll in.

“[Microsoft’s] Software Assurance and Licensing 6.0 gave a big shock, and pushed many companies that previously wouldn’t have considered Linux to investigate it as an alternative, on both the server-side and desktop,” Hegan says.

Just like IBM, Asterisk’s Hegan says lowered costs are the driving factor for customers. He says Microsoft is “in a way our best sales aid”, as Asterisk can easily put together an equivalent solution that’s priced well below one from Redmond.

Hegan says Linux and open source products often “sneak” into the enterprise in the same way that Microsoft products did in the past; that is, through user initiative rather than corporate policy.

Often, Linux starts off as a task-specific solution, such as firewalls. Impressed by the reliability and robustness of Linux, it might then be used to replace an aging file or print server running Netware.

“What’s happened recently, however, is that enterprises are seriously moving towards Linux on the desktop,” Hegan says. “They add up the cost of desktop and server client access licences for Microsoft Office, Windows XP and an antivirus solution, and quickly realise that the software licences cost more than the actual hardware. For simple office productivity tasks, it’s very hard to justify that sort of outlay. With open source software, enterprises don’t have to.”

End-to-end service

Auckland mobile applications developer Orbiz provides solutions that integrate information from any device, anywhere, with back-end systems in the enterprise. It does so with a range of Microsoft development tools, databases and operating systems, which form the core of Orbiz’s technical strategy.

Orbiz technology head Lukas Svoboda agrees that New Zealand is a very price-sensitive market, but cautions that too much shouldn’t be read into the open source world’s lack of licence fees.

“Most open source implementation projects tend to favour a very heavy services-focused delivery model. Usually, this means features and requirements still end up costing money [for the end users].”

According to Svoboda, open source initiatives tend to target specific problems and are developed “slowly and poorly” in an “ad-hoc manner”. He admits that there are “major exceptions to this” but that those projects are, or end up being, commercially funded in some manner, so that they come under proper project management.

Svoboda says a RAD environment like Microsoft’s Visual Studio .Net makes it significantly easier and faster to produce “good quality apps regardless of the end language or even the target environment”. He says that having a strong, object-oriented language at the core of Visual Studio .Net — C# — is a big plus.

Although open source software is conspicuous through its absence in Orbiz’s area of expertise, Svoboda says “we have a culture of technical understanding … so we are aware of the open source software out there”. However, despite Microsoft’s recent licensing changes, Orbiz hasn’t received any enquiries about open source solutions.

“Almost all our clients have a clear technical strategy in place for integrated systems, and the end-to-end technical proposition is significantly better than anything [currently] available with open source,” Svoboda says.

Echoing Svoboda’s sentiments about the importance of being able to deliver a tightly integrated solution from end-to-end is Gavin Bennett, head of Datasouth BusinessSolutions of Christchurch, a Microsoft certified partner.

Datasouth has many SME clients for which Bennett says a Linux solution would be “a bad proposition in terms of total cost of ownership”. Bennett says that Datasouth has in-house Unix expertise and has evaluated Linux and other open source software for the last three years, but still feels that it’s too difficult to use in a general purpose business environment.

“It might work for larger organisations with dedicated IT/MIS departments, but SMEs do not have that expertise in-house; also, they are too busy getting on with their businesses to learn a completely new platform,” Bennett says.

Bennett warns against letting emotions and anti-Microsoft feelings dictate a move toward open source-based solutions. “It has to make business sense, and there has to be ongoing support structures for the solution you go with.”

Datasouth has picked up business from customers who have installed Linux-based solutions, but found it either too hard to support themselves, or been let down by the often small integrators behind the implementation.

As for an often vaunted advantage of Linux, the ability to run on old hardware, Bennett says that Microsoft’s Terminal Server will do that too. But, he says, “PCs are commodity items these days, and have a very definite lifespan. Would you really want to entrust your business to old clunkers just to save a few dollars?”

Bennett admits that initially, Software Assurance and Licensing 6.0 was a concern for Datasouth’s customers. However, Software Assurance helped customers make the decision to plan ahead, he says, to ensure that they have a workable IT strategy for the next few years, and also tidied up “grey” areas of licensing, “so it turned out to be a good thing in the end”.

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