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Linux cynics

Freeware OS may be hot, but skeptics abound.

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Not everyone is clamoring for a seat on the Linux bandwagon these days, even though a mounting drumbeat of vendor and press hype sure makes it seem that way.

Linux quoteYou might call the resisters Linux cynics, or perhaps more precisely, Linux skeptics. Either way, many would-be Linux users and vendor supporters have a hard time envisioning the wide deployment of the popular shareware operating system in corporate networks, despite recent professions of faith from industry heavyweights such as Oracle, Intel, IBM and Netscape.

As for the ultimate dream of the most fervent Linux disciples - to topple Windows NT - the skeptics generally scoff at the notion and accuse the zealots of putting Microsoft-bashing ahead of their better business sense.

It's not that the skeptics don't like Linux (pronounced "lynn-ucks"). Most everyone who has deployed or tinkered with Linus Torvalds' 7-year-old Unix descendant speaks highly of its stability, scalability and flexibility. The Linux shareware development model is also attracting a growing body of admirers with its free open source code, which is backed by a loosely knit army of developers who contribute gratis upgrades and bug fixes. Any holes in this fabric, Linux fans insist, are being filled rapidly by makers of commercial Linux products, such as Red Hat Software and Caldera Systems.

However, the skeptics believe that only fools rush in to a bet-your-business relationship with an operating system that is still primarily controlled and supported by its user community - no matter how skilled and committed that community is - instead of going with a brand-name vendor with a proven track record.

"I believe Linux to be a very robust and stable operating system, and I have a lot of fun using it," says Frank Buechler, a network administrator for a large manufacturing company in Elmira, N.Y. "However, I do not believe it will be seeing the light of day in the corporate environment any time soon."

Buechler cites a common complaint about Linux as a major basis of his skepticism. "Linux is still a geeks' operating system, one which takes a fair amount of knowledge to configure and maintain," he says.

Accessing that knowledge can be a challenge, according to the skeptics. While technical support from commercial vendors is becoming more prevalent, Internet newsgroups remain the most common troubleshooting tool for Linux users. This works just fine, say fans of the operating system, but not everyone agrees.

"Linux won't work in the business community until a central site is created for tech support issues," contends David Cole, a technical systems specialist from Stillwater, Minn. "No business in this country is going to wait for a 17-year-old beatnik to [answer its newsgroup post and] fix its problem."

Cole also believes that any branded Linux operating system that gains mass acceptance will require a graphical user interface (GUI) that can rival those of Windows and Macintosh. Though a common complaint among the skeptics, this opinion annoys Linux purists, who argue that the system's superior capabilities are well worth forgoing a user-friendly GUI in favor of a tried-and-true command line.

Some GUIs are already available for Linux-based products and more are on the horizon, notes Paul McNamara, vice president of enterprise computing at Red Hat.

"Usability is a function of the market you're playing into," McNamara says. "Right now our focus is on the server, where most administrators are serious computer professionals, [the types who], even if they're using NT, have turned off the GUI."

It's estimated that up to 120,000 developers are actively involved in advancing just the Linux kernel. "We think the reason Linux has gone so far so fast is because fundamentally this model delivers better technology," McNamara says.

Big-time possibility

Again, the question is not whether Linux has a loyal following and a viable future, but whether it will blossom into a big-time corporate player. Lotus is among the vendors looking at Linux, and executives at the Cambridge, Mass., maker of Notes and Domino say they remain unconvinced on that point.

"We're not willing to make a business commitment to Linux yet because a lot of the information about it is hype," says Cliff Reeves, vice president of communications product management at Lotus. "It's not yet reality in terms of its business adoption."

The case for Linux, namely greater stability and flexibility through shareware and open source code, has yet to be documented to Reeves' satisfaction.

"The people making a market for Linux today are too glibly adopting [Oracle CEO] Larry Ellison's sort of 'screw Microsoft' role, which has nothing to do with customers," Reeves says. "It's like preaching against the great Satan."

If deemed desirable, however, porting Lotus products to Linux "would be very easy for us," he says. "It's yet another Unix; we're on three of them already."

Would-be Linux customers and industry experts also have other questions.

"Will the Linux community be supportive of 5-year-old hardware driver problems?" asks Tom Connors, a senior member of the technical staff at Texas Instruments in Attleboro, Mass. "Will they embrace new hardware quickly enough and the permutations of systems and devices?

"Though it's working well now, I'm not sure Linux will scale to the mass market," he adds.

The absence of predictability may also prove to be problematic, some say.

"From a corporate computing standpoint, a somewhat variable operating system such as Linux that doesn't have a single point of control can be somewhat risky," says Dwight Davis, service director at Boston consultancy Summit Strategies. "Also, Linux doesn't have any semblance of a roadmap that you can look at and know at least vaguely where the operating system is going to stand 18 to 24 months from now. It will be wherever the Linux community decides to take it."

While most describe that community as devoted and collegial, not everyone has had a pleasant experience dealing with it. Mitchell Regenbogen, a 15-year computer buff and lawyer for the city of New York, decided to give Linux a try awhile ago with an eye toward deploying the operating system in his law office.

"I concluded that more stable or not, more features or not, I'd have to devote the equivalent of either a full-time job or all of my spare time to Linux to get to where I was with Windows 3.1 five years ago," Regenbogen says. "Given the choice of changing my life for Linux or giving up, I gave up."

After sharing that story on a Linux newsgroup, Regenbogen incurred the wrath of a few Linux loyalists who accused him of simply lacking the will to learn. Warranted or not, that type of reaction is cited by Linux critics who contend that some within the Linux community are rude to new users, if not downright hostile.

It's just a few bad apples, insist the more temperate Linux fans. Rather than reflecting poorly on their favorite operating system, the complaints about learning curves, usability and support merely show that Linux isn't for everyone, insist the true believers.

The Linux cynics, of course, say that's exactly their point.

Editor's note: Network World's Paul McNamara and Red Hat's Paul McNamara are neither the same person nor related.


Contact Senior Editors Christine Burns and Paul McNamara

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