Big vendors lead leap to Linux

Miami-Dade County's government operations have around 15,000 users, and the county's IT officials would love nothing more than to cut licensing costs by adopting a Linux desktop strategy.

"We're all looking for something that will work as well (as Windows) but doesn't cost as much," said Gary Gray, the Florida county's systems support manager. But Miami-Dade isn't ready to risk interoperability and productivity limitations by taking the desktop Linux leap. "We're going to let the big people try this out first," he said.

Some of the "big people" Gray will be watching are IBM Corp. and Novell Inc., which have acknowledged plans to adopt Linux on the desktop internally, and Sun Microsystems Inc., which has already done so.

IBM has confirmed the authenticity of a recently leaked memo written by CIO Bob Greenberg detailing interest in moving IBM's workforce to Linux-based desktops by the end of next year.

And Novell plans to move its 6,000 employees to Linux desktops, Vice Chairman Chris Stone said this week. "We're doing it. We're moving all of our employees to using Linux desktops internally," he said. A Novell spokesman said there's no timetable for the move, calling it "a long-term, logical progression."

Sun, meanwhile, uses its Linux-based Java Desktop System internally and started selling it late last year. Peder Ulander, Sun's desktop solutions marketing director, said IBM's interest in a Linux desktop is "just one more endorsement, or acknowledgment, that we are probably headed down the right space."

Sceptical, Yet Eager

Although many users are interested in seeing what these vendors can do with a Linux desktop, it will take a lot to overcome their skepticism. Still, users are eager for any desktop alternative that the vendors may bring to the competitive landscape.

Jeffrey Campbell, vice president of technology services and CIO at Fort Worth, Texas-based Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., said a Linux desktop alternative "would merit a serious review."

Campbell cautioned that the price could be less compelling once support is considered, and he said security may also be a problem with Linux. But he said the growing interest in Linux on the desktop "could be a wake-up call for Microsoft to realize that there may be marketplace alternatives."

Harry Roberts, CIO at Boscov's Department Store LLC, a 40-store operation based in Reading, Pa., is considering replacing Windows NT with Linux on about two-thirds of the company's desktops -- the ones used by employees who aren't heavily reliant on Microsoft applications. He's also looking at Sun's StarOffice productivity suite.

"We will look at the TCO (total cost of ownership) and make a decision," said Roberts. "We certainly think it's a good, attractive platform."

But Linux on the desktop clearly faces an uphill battle. Users may be interested, but they're largely unconvinced.

TCO a Question

"My personal belief is that the jury is still very much out on the issue of total cost of ownership advantage of Linux over Windows," said Gordon Wishon, CIO at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

The big vendors' recent moves "bode fairly well" for Linux on the desktop, said Christopher David, the chief technology officer for Arlington County, Va. But he said it still doesn't ease his concerns. David worries about interoperability with ERP and CRM applications, as well as back-end systems. Rather than taking the Linux desktop route, the county has embarked on a portal/server strategy to "untether" his workforce from their desktops and give them access from any location.

Mike Taylor, CIO at Todd Pacific Shipyards Corp. in Seattle, also likes the portal strategy. Taylor plans to buy 450 PCs in the next few months and estimates that he could save US$20,000 by moving to Linux. But training people on a new system would quickly absorb that savings, he said.

The portal approach would genuinely lower support costs, "as opposed to just making a cheaper operating system available," Taylor said.

- Todd R. Weiss contributed to this report.

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