Interview with a Penguin

The first day of ‘The Great Linux Debate’ and my fifth year chairing the event at Linux Expo.

Times have changed. Linux has become more respectable and the beards are no longer as visible as they once were on the show floor. If last year’s theme was loosely based on the 'Addams Family Reunion', then this year found the show suffering from an identity crisis, somewhere between suits and sandals and reflecting the gap between an emerging big business interest in Linux computing and the code warriors who make up the heart of the Open Source movement.

The show floor was visibly smaller than in previous years and if one removed Sun Microsystems, IBM and Hewlett Packard, each there I suspect because the other one was, then there would be little left to see. This worries me a little, if only because after five years, it is still not as large as the Java Show once was.

The debate however appeared to empty the show floor, with over two hundred and fifty people crammed into the auditorium and other squeezed in the aisles outside. For the first time, Microsoft had decided to put in an appearance, to argue its corner against HP, IBM, Sun and SuSe and Microsoft’s Bradley Tipp arrived suitably dressed in black, leaving his Death Star hovering menacingly above London’s Olympia.

This year, the total cost of ownership argument was in full swing. Several members of the audience stood up and explained that using Linux had saved them zillions and that as the server never had to be taken down, they had forgotten how to reboot it. Microsoft’s Tipp avoided having to apologise for inflicting Windows NT on the human race but pointed out that Microsoft products were pretty good and offered customers choice and a single point of accountability. Microsoft might never learn to love Penguins but he could certainly see a future of coexistence in increasingly heterogonous computing environment. “Competition”, said Tipp, “Is good for Microsoft, it makes us do better and Microsoft is behind the development of open standards” He pointed to the relationship between IBM and Microsoft, which prompted a cynical comment from SuSe’s Malcolm Yates on the danger of the two giants locking everyone else out of such ‘open’ standards in the future.

In many respects, the debate had changed little from the previous year. Sun still believes that only Solaris is good enough for ‘heavy-lift’ applications and that Linux belongs at the ‘edge’ of the Enterprise. IBM believes that Linux scales and scales from mobile phones up to Mainframes and Hewlett Packard’s Mike Balma, claims that Linux can’t quite scale all the way yet but will do next year with a little help from Intel.

Taller of the two is not Darth Vader but Adam Jollans. Bradley Tipp from the death star on the right

Will Penguins ever learn to fly, I asked. Has Linux achieved critical mass yet? IBM’s Adam Jollans sees the momentum increasing year on year and for the first time, the audience at Linux Expo reflects signs of serious Enterprise adoption of Open Source solutions, reinforcing the view that choosing Linux is no longer simply a protest vote against Microsoft but a politico-economic statement which rejects the inevitability of a single standard of computing.

Asked if Linux represented a victory of ideology over technology the best answer from the panel came from Microsoft, that “Linux represents an ideology in combination with technology”, a contradiction that Microsoft still struggles to find the answers to.


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