The Penguin Goes For The Kill

Picture a small, fat and stodgy penguin
with a lean, lithe and hungry leopard and you would say that the penguin is dead meat. It
would sound unbelievable, and very imaginative, if the hungry leopard’s eyes were to
portray fear and the body shiver. If this were a case study of animals, the above
situation would indeed be very fanciful but in the corporate jungle this could be a grim
reality. Replace the penguin with Linux and the leopard with Microsoft and you get the
picture.

Linux, a threat to the Redmond-based
software giant! By the way who or what is Linux? Never heard of it! Is this a joke?

Before you dismiss this as a neat piece of
fiction, let’s get to the root of the latest OS on the block.

Linux is an operating system from the once
looked-down upon world of hackers, nerds and techies. Linux is a completely free
re-implementation of the POSIX specification, with SYSV and BSD extensions (which means it
looks and feels like Unix, but does not come from the same source code). It had its humble
beginning in the academic world when its developer, Linus Torvalds, a student of the
Helsinki University, created a Unix clone inspired by Minix, an instructional version of
Unix. Next step-the internet. Torvalds posted his source codes on the net for peer review
and modification. Seven years hence, Linux popularity grows unabated. When it emerged, it
consisted of some 10,000 lines of code. Now the kernel alone is almost one million lines,
with millions more in the hundreds of ancillary programs that make up a full Linux
distribution. The user base is estimated at seven million. Though the seven million
installed base pales insignificantly with Microsoft’s Windows base of over 250 million and
around 25 million for the Macs, one has to appreciate that the Linux user base has grown
without the marketing juggernaut of Microsoft or the early entry advantage of Apple
Computer.

linux1.JPG (19541 bytes)

How could an OS without any
vendors backing grow so fast? Though software developers like Red Hat and Caldera are
aggressively promoting the OS in recent times, Linux has grown without much support in the
past. The mantras-internet, GPL (General Public License) and freeware. Since the beginning
of the Linux phenomena, source codes have been available on the net, and thousands and
thousands of techies have worked to develop the OS to its present state and further
development is continuing on the net. Mind you, the techies are not the conventional
‘basement’ hackers but programmers from organizations like NASA, Boeing, GE and MIT. Such
huge collaborative development project has enhanced the reputation of Linux as a stable
and reliable operating system. Moreover, Torvalds copyrighted Linux under the GPL, which
meant that anyone could sell a version of Linux, but the source code or any changes or
improvement must remain public. Open source software (OSS) like Linux have the inherent
advantage for the users who are able to see the source code, enabling them to repair flaws
and customize the program according to their requirements. This is unlike proprietary
software (Windows, Mac etc) where vendors reveal only the binaries-machine language
versions of executable programs-and users cannot customize the software suiting their
needs and have to depend on the provider for any or all of their needs. Moreover, with
thousands of people scrutinizing the code, bugs can be located and fixed and features are
allowed to evolve much more rapidly than in case of commercial suppliers. The final
impetus to the growth of Linux has been the freeware concept. The OS can be downloaded
from the net without any cost attachment. This freebie feature prompts many a user to try
the program. And if it suits their requirement, there is usually little time before it
gets incorporated in the mainstream process.

Applications
Ported or expected to be ported on Linux
Applications
  
Application
area  
Developers
Adobe Acrobat Reader
  
PDF file helper   Adobe
Applixware Office Suite
  
office applications   Applix
CCVS  Credit card verification HKS Inc
Oracle   Relational Database
  
Oracle
Netscape communicator
  
Browser   Netscape
GIMP   Image manipulation   *
Maxwell   Word processor   *
Ishmail   email   *
Megahedron   3D graphics engine  Syndesis Corp
MPEGTV Player   Play VCD   MPEG TV LLC
Moonlight Creator   Virtual creation  

*

ScanShop   Capture and exchange images
 
Vividata
StarOffice Suite   Office applications  Star Division
VeriCAD  

*

*

WordPerfect   Word processor   Corel
Adaptive Server Enterprise
  
Database engine   Sybase
Informix SE and InformixSQL Relational database Informix

*indicates
freeware.

Now back to the original question. Can
Linux pose a serious threat to mighty Microsoft’s Windows NT? Can the lowly David roll off
the well-armed Goliath’s head? Moreover, does the software giant need to worry when its
Windows NT has shown a robust growth of over 40% for 1996 and 1997 as per the Datapro
Information Services survey? This figure needs to be considered against other OSs like
AIX, Solaris, DEC Unix, OS/2, Mac and others which have shown a negative growth for the
same period.

The answer to the above question is yes, if
international trends are an indication. Talking of international trends, oops! we forgot
to mention Linux in the above survey. Apart from Windows NT, only Linux has shown a
positive growth of around 27% (see chart). This has to be seen in consonance with the
marketing thrust for Windows NT and Linux. Windows NT has the advantage of a well-oiled
marketing support of the cash rich Redmond giant alongwith the advantage of the existing
Windows user base. On the other hand, Linux’s excellent growth can be attributed to the
word-of-mouth strategy.

An important trend
Apart from the growing
individual user groups, corporates are beginning to endorse Linux and are porting their
mission-critical applications to Linux-based servers. To name a few, Boeing, GE, Eastman
Kodak, Xerox, McMurdo Air Force Base, Southwest Airlines-and the list is growing. This is
a complete turnabout from the usual reaction of IS people-ranging from surprise to
disbelief. The traditional rebuke: “How can you possibly consider it for a critical
server?” This change in the corporate circle, used to 800-page manuals and high-tech
support and earlier shirking a freeware, is an important pointer to Linux gain in the
battle with NT. The interesting part comes out from what Caldera President and CEO says,
“Our studies show that over 45% of those buying Linux today have never bought Linux
or Unix before.”

Linux’s stumbling
blocks

Absence of single
standard
Fragmentation of Linux-Already five main models.
Infighting between Linux vendors. Red Hat refuses
to ship Caldera’s KDE desktop (Windows-style interface) product.
Lack of enterprise-quality tech support.
In the long run, support from other Unix variants
unlikely as Linux may cannibalize their own marketshare.

Why are corporates agreeing to put
their applications on Linux-based servers? Increasingly, corporates are beginning to
compare both the OSs (Linux and NT) on a feature to feature basis for the individual
requirements and tilting toward Linux. Cisco did, NASA and Boeing are doing for certain
mission-critical applications and the list is growing and impressive. Here are some
important issues concerning the corporate users and the comparison of Linux and NT.

STABILITY: The most
important feature of any OS is the stability factor. If your system crashes, productivity
will plummet, whether you have a $20,000 high-end server or a $2000 low-end server. Linux
outscores NT on this feature if one considers that majority of small- and medium-sized web
servers run on Linux. Stability of the systems is the key consideration for internet
service providers (ISPs) and is tantamount to business life or death.

Here are a few examples of ISPs using
Linux: HogiaNet, Comfo Access Information, Network Canada Corp, Electropolis, Hex.Net
Superhighway, Web Point Communications, Internet Discovery, Vest Internett and others
(check out www.m-tech.ab.ca/linux-biz for more info). A closer example is the success of
PC Quest’s experiment with Linux-based server. The magazines’ test lab switched from NT to
Linux for its communications server around eight months ago. Since then its five-year-old
PC server has been running untouched in a corner. Its NT experience: 20+ times crashes
during the three months it was set up.

PRICE: Let’s not talk
about it. Linux is a clear winner as it’s a freeware.

USER-FRIENDLINESS: For a
non-IT savvy user, the rich graphical interface clearly tilts the balance in favor of
Microsoft. On the other hand, Linux, being a Unix variant, suffers from the inherent user
disadvantage-command line operations and low ‘aim and click’ support. Nevertheless, the OS
edges out NT when the user base shifts to IT-savvy users. Of course, it is another thing
that Linux developers are making much headway in interfacing graphics in it like the KDE
system by Caldera and the GNOME project advocated by Red Hat.

CUSTOMER SUPPORT: This is
an area of dispute with no clear winners. Microsoft claims that because of its
well-established marketing and technical network it has an upper hand on this front. Linux
proponents, on the other hand, claim that inspite of few small vendors, online tech
support is much quicker and more reliable than others’. They claim that the numerous user
groups can sort out any problem within 20 minutes on real-time basis. For instance, when a
‘Ping of Death’ assault of multiple, low-level messages crashed several operating systems
worldwide, a quick patch to Linux enabled the attack to be thwarted in a couple of hours.
Users of other OSs had to sweat out their vulnerability far longer. So, no clear winners
on this front.

SOFTWARE COMPATIBILITY:
Windows NT is the clear winner in the desktop segment. However, on the server segment,
Linux, being a flavor of Unix, is way ahead of NT. Also, Windows NT may face competitive
pressures as more and more vendors start porting their software on to Linux. For example,
Netscape intends to make Linux a ‘total reference’ platform just like Win 32 and Mac and
develop all its product to work with Linux. Database vendors like Oracle, Sybase, Computer
Associates and Informix are developing their products to work with Linux. Corel Corp has
announced its decision to develop the WordPerfect suite Linux-compatible. The list is
becoming bigger (see table) and may harm Microsoft in the coming years. Increasingly,
computer manufacturers too are adding to the woes of Microsoft. The company might lose its
monopoly as the defacto pre-installed OS, with computer manufacturers like Dell announcing
to preinstall Linux with its wares. Also, over 46 hardware resellers in 10 countries offer
desktop, laptop and server systems equipped with the free operating system. No more
genuflection to Microsoft.

HARDWARE COMPATIBILITY:
Again an area of dispute, but this time the tilt toward Linux. The logic is simple.
Instead of being based on what the industry thinks it needs, Linux has been developed
based on the needs of the people who use it and it has been developed by those same
people. So if a programmer faces any hardware problem, he can devise a driver for the said
hardware due to the OSS nature of Linux. The OS probably supports the largest number of
hardware and any new hardware will be added as and when the user faces any problem with a
particular hardware. Post it to any user group and somebody will find the solution. Also,
Linux integrates seamlessly other OSs like Windows, MacOS, OS/2 etc and supports
everything from an Intel 386 to Pentium Pro, Alpha, PowerPC, Motorola 680×0, Sun SPARC and
others.

Linux
Luminaries

When
you talk of Windows you think of Microsoft, talk of Mac, Apple is the name, and when you
talk of Linux, Red Hat and Caldera clicks. These two companies have been on the forefront
of promoting Linux as a viable cheap and commercial alternative to other proprietary
systems. In an exclusive email conversation with DATAQUEST, Robert Young,
President of Red Hat Software Inc, and Ramson Love, President and CEO,
Caldera Systems, answer some of the underlying issues bothering Linux users.

The foremost problem in the adoption of Linux is the lack of
technical support. How are software developers, vendors and resellers tackling this
problem?

Robert Young: Largely through the services available from the existing ‘Unix support’
organizations. Many of such mid-size organizations already offer Red Hat Linux support,
and we expect to be able to report announcements in the next few months of support from
the large computer companies for products and services supporting the Red Hat Linux OS. In
addition, the internet-based news groups and mailing lists have proven to be invaluable
for cooperative support efforts for serious users of the Linux OS.

Ramson Love: Caldera
Systems is recruiting resellers worldwide to provide local support. We have over 700
resellers in around 50 countries. We will be offering training to authorized training
centers around the world as well as training certification tests. We believe this will
solve two critical concerns. First, VARs can offer a consistent level of support as well
as having the necessary credentials to provide professional services on Linux. Moreover,
corporations can get their own internal support teams to speed on the OS in a very short
period of time, allowing them to deploy it in a much broader way. Oracle, for example,
will be supporting Oracle8 on Linux worldwide. The support team spans the globe. They need
a way to get that support team up, to speed on Linux in a very short period of time.
Caldera Systems is also working on remote administration utilities that are browser based.
This will allow VARs and service providers to literally put Linux-based appliances
(monitor and keyboard-less PC boxes with Internet or application services pre-configured)
on a network. The next wave of Linux acceptance will come from the PC OEM community.
Easy-to-use administration and pre-configured Linux options will reduce support needs and
increase Linux acceptance into mainstream markets.

Unlike Windows and other OSs, Linux
developers are yet to develop standardization of the OS, leading to confusion in the
user’s mind. How will software developers tackle the growing concern of lack of
standardization?

Robert Young: This is a serious misconception of the Linux OS tools.
There is only one Linux kernel, only one set of supporting C libraries, only one X Window
System and only one set of C and C++ compilers. It is also important to recognize that
Linux is not really an OS. It is a wide range of open source tools and programs. The
various Linux distributions build the actual OS. In effect, very few people build their
own “Linux OS” they almost use either Red Hat Linux, Slackware Linux, Debian
Linux or one of the others. So there is both good standardization among the Linux
distributors because we all use the same components, and great standardization within the
releases of each actual version of the OS.

Ramson Love: Caldera
Systems has been a significant proponent of an effort called Linux Standard Base
(http://www.linuxbase.org) which will have both a written and a reference standard
platform. I believe that they are adopting the Unix 98 specifications as the minimum. The
plan is to have all the major Linux providers adopt the LSB work as a basis for all the
Linux distributions. This will enable ISVs to port once to Linux. What ISVs are doing now
is specifying the kernel and library versions they support. This seems to be working well
for now, but LSB is the right way to go.

Assuming that software developers achieve
certain standardization of the OS, can this impact the basic spirit of Linuxities who have
thrived and grown because of the lack of standardization and improving Linux along?

Well, there is such a wide range of opinions among those who make up the Linux community
that I suspect the answer will, as usual, be yes and no. Everyone will be pleased with the
increased number of users, but some of the early Linux users will miss the good old days.

Ramson Love: Caldera tried
to go down the path of Unix branding with the Linux community several years ago. We went
away from that then as it would have splintered the Linux community because the OS was
moving too fast. This is not the case today. The kernel and library development has slowed
considerably. Major ISVs like Oracle, Sybase and Informix cannot afford to do multiple
ports of their product to the same OS platform in a single year. Now is the right time to
introduce some additional standards. LSB is the right approach. Linus Torvalds, creator of
Linux, himself is advocating that more development work should be done on applications
rather than on the kernel.

In addition, I believe that we are seeing a
transition from the developer buyer to the corporate buyer. An internal research conducted
by us on our registered users showed that one year ago, 75% of those buying OpenLinux were
developers. While our most recent blind survey showed that nearly 96% of those buying
OpenLinux are business users. The new Linux buyer will demand more and more application
support, which will indirectly force standards. There are many more areas that the
hardcore developer can continue to work on to further enhance the overall Linux solution.

Microsoft’s reaction
The Redmond giant has been
used to such threat, so what’s different this time? The confidence is reflected in
Microsoft’s India office. According to Sanjiv Mathur, Product Manager, Microsoft, "In
the immediate future-between 6 to 12 months-we do not see Linux denting the Windows market
in the country." Very true indeed, but it’s a different ball game this time. Anxiety
and apprehension have gripped the giant as indicated by its recent filing with the
Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). "Over the past year, the Linux OS has gained
increasing acceptance and leading software developers such as Oracle and Corel have
announced that they will develop applications that run on Linux," the company said in
its annual filing with the SEC. Moreover, as per the Datapro Information services survey
on the overall satisfaction of users, Linux is way ahead of all the other OSs, including
NT.

Why NT only?
However, why is Linux being perceived as a threat only to Windows NT and not to other Unix
variants? Linux is Intel compatible and its vendors are aggressively attacking the
traditional Microsoft market-the desktop market. Windows’ phenomenal growth has been due
to its understanding of the desktop market, where any version of Unix, so far, has failed
to make a dent (remember the Wintel combine?). Talking of the Windows and Intel (Wintel)
combine, recently, Intel alongwith Netscape bought a stake in Red Hat Software-a key Linux
vendor. Again a direct message to Microsoft and presumably, the birth of a Lintel combine.
Moreover, the high cost and propriety technology of Unix have been the biggest deterrent
for its widespread applicability in the PC market. Another Unix-related problem has been
the lack of user-friendliness or the Command Line function of all flavors of Unix. No
doubt, Unix players are losing sleep-not having sleepless nights like Microsoft though.
The key features, apart from cost, of Linux are available with all flavors of Unix.

What’s troubling Microsoft
Microsoft had paid scant
attention to the Unix versions floating in cyber world but seems suddenly worried about
Linux. Now Linux is being viewed as the OS offering Unix reliability on the PC and hence
directly challenging Microsoft’s hegemony. Moreover, the Linux popularity is galloping,
courtesy the internet. Search the net for articles on ‘Linux vs Windows NT’ and you have
an endless list of articles extolling the virtues of Linux over Windows NT. The writer,
however, is yet to come across a single article highlighting NT supremacy over Linux.
There may be a reason. According to Sanjiv Mathur, "Microsoft bashing may be the
prime reason. Linux has been developed by techies and NT is a dominant force in the
business and corporate circle, and we do not expect our clients to canvass for us."
Well, others may have a difference of opinion. Something to do with reality about the
performance of the two systems.

The Linux Equation
Linux is being touted as an
alternative to Windows with most of the Unix vendors, especially Sun, backing Linux to the
hilt. However, it is also time to look into a few issues like. Will Linux pose a challenge
to the Unix itself? Or, Will the child outgrow the parent? The logic is simple. Linux
incorporates most of the features of other forms of Unix, but is equipped with the best
marketing tool-freeware. Sooner or later, Linux will step to in the Unix market in direct
competition with Sun’s Solaris, DEC Unix and other Unix flavors. Will Sun’s McNealy
continue to support Linux in the future or will Gates have the last laugh? Interesting
scenario. Let’s wait and watch.

Indeed it’s still a long way before Linux
can replicate the Windows success. In fact, minor irritants may assume major proportions
and jeopardize Linux’s growth in the future (see Linux’s stumbling blocks). Till then,
Microsoft better watch out for the penguin. An AnchorDesk quick poll survey gave Linux the
highest chances (56%) as the OS with the highest potential to overtake Windows followed by
a distant Mac with 27% rating. As Linus Torvalds would put it, Some people have told me
that they don’t think a fat penguin really embodies the grace of Linux, which tells me
they have never seen an angry penguin charging at them in excess of over 100 mph. They
would be a lot more careful about what they say if they had."

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