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Linux gathers critical mass needed to compete with NT

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Like a snowball getting larger as it rolls downhill, Linux continues to gain momentum. As the worldwide development community continues to add functionality and connectivity options to Linux ("SNA development ties Linux to mainframes," NW, Jan. 18, page 1), the "renegade" platform becomes more mainstream - and more viable as a widely accepted enterprise server platform.

Many in the IT community have known for quite some time that Linux is a stable, reliable and inexpensive network server operating system. In fact, if the one-sided debate of Linux vs. Windows NT in last fall's Network World Fusion forum is any indication, most technical network administrators would much rather install and support Linux that any server operating system offered by Microsoft.

The general acceptance of Linux is a chicken and egg thing. More companies would choose Linux to host their business applications if the independent software vendors (ISV) would port their software programs to the Linux platform. And the ISVs would port their software if they knew that more companies would buy the Linux version to host their business applications.

Leading ISVs, such as Oracle and Corel, already have taken the plunge to deliver their commercial software applications on Linux. With big-name ISVs now in the Linux camp, many smaller ISVs are sure to follow. (Oddly, even Microsoft has lent credence to the viability of Linux, by claiming in recent court testimony that Linux is a threat to Microsoft's operating system business.)

Hardware companies, too, are jumping on the Linux bandwagon. Dell already sells servers preconfigured with Linux. And server king Compaq is expected to announce a deal with leading distributor Red Hat Software to pre-install Red Hat's latest version of Linux on some models of Compaq servers. Compaq currently offers Linux on its servers, but only on large, customized shipments. This new deal could very well turn the tide for Linux as a commercial network operating system.

Deals like the Compaq-Red Hat one are what business managers who control the IT purse strings need to see. Business people don't care a whole lot about technical superiority. But they do care about the ready availability of commercial solutions, technical support and integration expertise - all the things Microsoft has been able to deliver around Windows NT.

Until recently, getting support for your Linux system might have been a touchy issue for management. Network administrators were largely dependent on online forums and user groups to answer questions and offer help. Not that this is a bad thing, but business managers prefer to know they have a specific commercial resource identified for support. Now that companies such as Caldera Systems and Red Hat are commercially distributing Linux, business managers feel they have an accountable vendor that can provide support.

Large, successful technology companies are beginning to invest in the commercialization of Linux, legitimizing the long-term prospects for this particular piece of freeware. Intel, Oracle and Netscape recently injected millions of investment dollars into Red Hat, giving the distributor enough working capital to form an enterprise computing division. Red Hat CEO Bob Young says the money will go toward operating system platform service, technical support, strategic alliances and "company responsibility" - all the things decision makers look for in an enterprise technology provider.

If you've been trying to convince your management that Linux is the right technical choice for a server platform, perhaps it's time to play the business angle trump card. Linux is inexpensive to acquire, can be purchased from multiple sources, has a growing number of applications, is endorsed by the industry's major technology players, has ready sources of technical support and is preferred by technology managers around the world. These claims are easy to substantiate and can be relayed in terms that business managers can understand.

Linux is quickly acquiring the critical mass it needs to give Windows NT Server a real run for its money. Nothing could be better for this industry than some good, old-fashioned competition for your business.

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Musthaler is vice president of Currid & Co., a Houston-based technology consulting firm. She can be reached at linda@ currid.com

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