Time to Hang-up My Beard

I’m an equal opportunity employer. Really I am. I’m prepared to consider Linux as a serious operating alternative to anything available from the ‘evil empire’ and so it seems, do an increasing number of large businesses, encouraged by the power of the ‘Blue’ side of the ‘Force’, IBM.

It’s been almost three years since Bob Young gave me my own Red Hat to wear and since then and regardless of attempts by ‘You know who’ to marginalize the Operating System as a geeky fad, Linux has gradually emerged from its natural, open-source home among the Hobbits and has found the industry support it needs to launch it into the Enterprise Server market. Most noticeably, Oracle (9i) has announced that it is now giving Linux equal status in a market it now sees being split three ways, between Windows, Linux and Solaris. This is an enormous boost for Linux fortunes, as the OS now offers the credibility that goes with the support of both IBM and Oracle, an event that finally dismisses any suggestion that Linux is a risky “unsupported” environment attractive to only the very brave or the very foolish IS Director.

And it’s not just IBM and Oracle leading the charge. Linux continues to grow market share at around 30 per cent annually and according to Business Week both Dell and HP are claiming that 12 per cent of their server customers now wish to have Linux pre-installed while Sun Microsystems is seeing 25 per cent growth in sales of its Linux-based Cobalt server appliances.

Whenever an IT columnist makes a prediction about the future, you can be sure it’s wrong but it’s not so long ago that I was having heated arguments with people about the potential for utility computing and cheap Applications Servers using Linux. The first of these, IBM’s 21st century re-invention of ‘Bureau Computing’, which uses Linux Virtual Services, connecting customers to managed, Linux-based applications on Mainframes at e-business hosting centres, is already a gleam in Big Blue’s eye and looks set to revive one of more fundamental elements of the ASP concept that fell flat last year. The second, the arrival of a wave of cheap Server Appliances running Linux instead of Windows, is still, I suspect two years away – You could never really describe Sun as cheap - but the demand among businesses and governments to drive down the costs of computing, is driving the agenda at a pace, which is hard to ignore.

Tilting Microsoft off its comfortable perch is still going to be an uphill struggle, if only because 50 per cent of the market is still owned by the company and the other Unix flavours of HP-UX and Solaris are more likely to be a victim of Linux ambitions before any serious pain is felt by Microsoft, which is busily developing Windows into a powerful Enterprise OS and one good enough to take on any variant of UNIX.

Perhaps in the end, the future of Linux can be seen as a huge game of poker with the future of Enterprise computing represented in the chips. Buying a place at the table costs millions or even billions of dollars in development and marketing money and only IBM, Sun, Oracle and Microsoft can really afford to play. The winner may not be the company with the best hand. It could be the one with the best bluff.

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