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Network World - It's now obvious. Linux is an established force for low-cost, reliable computing power in data center and edge server deployments. Now the penguin has other fish to fry.
Attacking the desktop, winning support of independent software vendors (ISV) and embedding itself inside a myriad of new consumer and enterprise devices are among the challenges facing Linux in 2004.
"The big story around Linux in 2004 will be less about technological evolution," says Brian Stevens, vice president of operating systems development at Red Hat. He says the biggest development in Linux will be a continuation of the "snowball effect" - more customers deploying, and creating more successful references, which will beget more customer deployments. "The things holding back enterprises in the past" - particularly, the lack of references - "are just not an issues anymore," he says.
Linux has never been more popular. It was the No. 2 server operating system in the world last year, behind Windows, according to IDC. A survey SG Cowen conducted in November found that 80% of the 500 IT professionals surveyed used Linux in some fashion in their networks. The survey also found that two-thirds of the users had plans to bring more Linux software into the mix over the next two years.
Among enterprise Linux users, server applications were the overwhelming choice for deployment: 72% of respondents said they run Linux on servers; only 15% run Linux on desktops. For companies not using Linux, the major reason was a perceived lack of application support.
"We spent a lot of time and money enabling Linux to run on our hardware and to get our middleware to run on Linux," says Jim Stallings, IBM's general manager for Linux. "The next big inflection point is getting more applications running on Linux."
Stallings says there are about 5,000 enterprise applications for Linux in IBM's database. "That's not nearly enough," he says. "We need the number of applications to be in the 20,000 range." Recent commitments by SAP and Oracle around Linux have helped bolster this effort, he says.
According to Red Hat's Stevens, "it's always been a chicken-and-egg issue," where ISVs have held back on Linux development because of a perceived lack of Linux adoption. "Linux is now at a critical mass where it's relevant enough for ISVs to invest dollars in Linux software," he says. Major announcements of Linux support last year came from vendors such as Documentum, Informix, PeopleSoft and Sun.
"This year will be about blocking and tackling in terms of getting more ISVs on board with Linux and maintaining relationships with customers," Stevens adds.
Dan Kusnetzky, IDC's vice president of system software research, agrees. This year will see major progress in Linux's evolution, but on the business side more than technical. "Linux is going through the same evolutionary process that other operating systems did when they were emerging from an early-adopter phase to a more mainstream kind of tool," Kusnetzky says.
He says many of the technical doubts about Linux's capabilities have been assuaged by the latest kernel technology and by mainstream vendor support offerings. The campaign now for Linux companies is to convince high-level IT executives that Linux is the most economical platform for deploying applications.
"Applications are what's important," Kusnetzky says. "Do companies care that a certain application is running on top of Solaris or Linux or Windows? Maybe at some point in the decision-making process, but the big decision for an enterprise is the applications, such as an IBM or Oracle [database, middleware and ERP] stack."
He says discussions with customers about Linux, which have traditionally been conducted with technical-level system administrators, need to go to the next level.
"Don't talk about features and functions [of Linux]; that will get you sent to talk to Dilbert," Kusnetzky says, adding that Linux companies "should be talking to Dilbert's boss or Dilbert's boss' boss instead."
Another big story for Linux in 2004 could revolve around the desktop - traditionally a weak spot for Linux in corporations.
While Windows still dominates the desktop with more than 90% market share worldwide, "lots of enterprises are asking questions about Linux on the desktop, in certain areas," Stallings says.
Companies that pick their spots carefully, and don't migrate desktops just to spite Microsoft, could see success, analysts say.
"An enterprise also must examine its application portfolio and understand its user base to identify the populations that can most effectively use Linux," said Michael Silver, an analyst with Gartner, in a 2003 report. "Enterprises whose users require a narrow range of applications, such as data entry workers and some structured-task workers, will have far lower migration costs to move from Windows to Linux."
This movement has been popular overseas, where governments in Brazil, China and Germany have begun moving to Linux as they look to rely less on U.S.-based Microsoft as a primary software supplier. Many of these countries also are developing their own software around Linux.
Research firm Evans Data Group surveyed 1,000 application developers in China last year and found that 44% had written code for the Linux operating system. Meanwhile 65% said they expected to write a Linux application in the next year.
Consolidation of the Linux industry will help software makers focus on making products for the desktop.
Novell kicked off this trend in the fall of 2003 with its purchase of German Linux distributor SuSe. The move brought what many consider to be the No. 2 Linux distribution into Novell's product line. Last year Novell also acquired Ximian, which makes Linux management and desktop GUI software. "One thing the industry needs to do is rally around the developer community," says Jeff Hawkins, vice president, office of the CTO, at Novell. "Right now the development community has too many choices."
With software makers focused on a few core Linux platforms, application development could flourish. "This will largely be done by market forces," Hawkins says. "There won't be any one vendor driving or pushing it."