Linux is full of fanatics, potential

Be careful what you say about Linux. Say the wrong thing, truth or otherwise, and you risk agitating an underworld of zealots. It was never clear if theirs was a true passion for the free operating system or simply a dislike for Microsoft Corp., which they felt Linux would destroy.

Whatever the case, the utter overzealousness of the Linux crowd has done a disservice to Linux and to the IT world as well. These misguided souls have consistently distorted Linux's capabilities and helped sow confusion among IT over its future viability as a mainstream operating system. As former Gartner Inc. analyst Michael Gartenberg wrote, Linux still doesn't offer compelling reasons to switch from entrenched operating systems, most notably 32-bit Windows.

While Linux has yet to reach mainstream operating system status, the Linux debate has itself spilled into the mainstream. Last month, Gartner Dataquest released a Microsoft-sponsored study that showed that Linux was being shipped on less than 10 percent of all new servers, which is an anemic figure when contrasted with the Linux hype. But those figures collide with data from International Data Corp., which show Linux claiming three times more of the server market.

Those who claim Linux is mainstream or close to it may be right, to some extent, since Linux has shown some characteristics of established software. For one thing, it's been victimized by an Internet worm called Ramen, which wriggled its way into versions of Red Hat Inc.'s Linux offerings earlier this year, hitting sites, then spreading by attacking servers running the same operating system. Then there was a lengthy delay in the release of the Linux 2.4 kernel due to "last-minute stuff," Linux creator Linus Torvalds told his minions in an e-mail. Worms, product delays, disagreements over market share? Sounds mainstream to me.

With so much noise and confusion, how do you discern which end of the Linux box is up? With IT budgets tightening and even shrinking, is it time to take a fresh look at an open-source enterprise operating system? Surprisingly, my answer is yes with qualifications. First, Linux continues to gather broad industry support far beyond its die-hards. In the past six months alone:

- Sun Microsystems Inc. unwrapped Java for Linux appliances, a potential software platform for businesses and consumers.

- IBM Corp. announced its eServer cluster for Linux as part of its ongoing efforts to bring the operating system into the computing mainstream.

- Red Hat Inc. brought out new enterprise-class services to simplify systems administration for customers running its software.

- IBM and SAP AG agreed to deliver the Internet platform on IBM's big zSeries mainframes that run Linux.

- Oracle Corp. added Linux 2.4 support to its 9i application server.

These are major companies making significant commitments to Linux with the same core product offerings that you can find in just about any major enterprise computing environment. You'd be remiss to not put Linux on servers in test cells or non-business-critical areas. Just remember that Linux is a niche operating system today and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. The biggest obstacles to its broad acceptance, as shown in research by Evans Data Corp. and others, are a lack of open-source standards, multibillion-dollar investments in installed proprietary software and investments in training to use that installed base. None of those obstacles is going away any time soon.

(Bill Laberis is a consultant in Holliston, Mass., and a former editor in chief of Computerworld. Contact him at

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