Corporate Linux FAQ

Why would a company consider switching to Linux?

The days of “one size fits all” are gone. No one (apart from maybe Microsoft) is actually propagating the one-OS idea anymore. IS people are more concerned about using the right tools for the right job. Their biggest concern is inter-operation between various platforms, and OSs like Solaris (on Sun machines), OS/400 (on IBM AS/400 systems), and others recognize and cater to this. As does Linux, which happily cooperates with just about any OS under the Sun, including Windows.

Now you know that the phrase “switching to Linux” is not really appropriate. A company should start using Linux in conjunction with other operating systems.

Linux has a lot to offer to business users’stability, completeness, and support. These are three major issues for any corporation that needs to depend on its computers.

Linux, like other Unixes, offers this because of its mature background’Unix has been around for almost three decades and has matured in this time. It’s still the OS of choice for anyone who values uptimes of months and years rather than days or (hopefully) weeks.

Rapid cost escalation because of incompleteness of an OS is another factor’Linux is so complete that in many cases you just don’t need to buy or acquire anything else to deploy it. Other OSs (even many commercial Unixes) tend to give you the barebones, then make you pay heavily for required add-ons and options.

Finally, when problems crop up, they usually do so at seriously inconvenient times. At that time, it’s important to be able to ask for help and get it’fast. No commercial company on earth can even come close to rivaling the kind of support you can get for Linux today’mainly because the support is largely Internet based, and knows no working hours. You can be in direct touch with the developers rather than fight your way through voice-menu layers, on-hold music, and “working hours”. Added to that, the source code for just about everything under Linux (including the OS itself) is available in case you want to fix things yourself. And with the bonus of more and more Linux-oriented commercial companies coming into the picture, it all adds up very nicely.

So why would a company want to deploy Linux? Simple, because it’s stable, complete and extremely well supported.

What kind of organizations are using Linux in India?

The spread of companies using Linux today has now become too wide to classify. We have seen multi-national electronics giants, huge public sector corporations, software firms, massive architectural firms, donor agencies, chartered accountants, textile designers, training institutes, grocery stores, machinery manufacturers, and mail-order companies deploy Linux with great success.

For what?

Just like in the rest of the world, there are three levels of deployment Linux is witnessing today in India.

The first level is (as one would expect) as a server. This can be both as an Internet/intranet server or a traditional file server. Due to its ability to emulate just about any network OS available today, Linux can be a Unix server, a Windows NT server or a Novell NetWare server’end users wouldn’t even know that they are connected to a Linux box.

The second level is development. As Linux in effect is Unix, software developed under Linux will run under just about any Unix available today. Because of the drastic difference in hardware requirements (Linux can run on a low-end 386/486 and still perform similar to a high-end workstation), Linux enables people to develop on of low-cost platforms for eventual deployment under a “big” Unix system. In India, where costs and rapid obsolescence of hardware can play havoc with a company’s finances, this makes for an attractive proposition.

The third level is at the user level. This is relatively new, but has been gaining momentum. At this level, end users use Linux as their main operating systems, working under X Windowing environment on a desktop very similar to, but quite often better than the kind offered by other OSs. Applications are available by the ton now. Even commercial ones. Full office suites priced at a tenth of what they would cost under other OSs, communication programs, utility programs, multimedia applications and games’you name it and it’s available. If a company wishes to give their users functionality similar to what they would have under another OS, then they can do so at very low cost, and with added stability and manageability.

Can a company expect support for Linux? And from which sources?

One of the major FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) weapons used against Linux (and other Unixes for that matter) has been “lack of support”. Not even Linux’s worst detractors bother using this factor anymore, and for good reason’it’s clear that the support Linux enjoys is as good, if not better, than the support any commercial OS out there enjoys.

The cycle of “put out bad software, have users suffer, make them pay for support” has been broken by a model of support that Linux helped introduce’responsibility for one’s product. If the product fails to perform the task it’s supposed to, the developers cannot and will not pass the buck. They will fix the problem, often working closely with the end-user. This makes for better products than we have been exposed to, throughout the past decade.

Today everyone is connected in some fashion or the other. E-mail is a massive enabler, and often the preferred way of communication. So is the World Wide Web. Most commercial outfits today rely on this medium to support their users.

Linux is no different. But unlike a company that works nine to five, a Linux user facing a problem is usually able to get a solution in a matter of minutes, or at most, a couple of hours, simply by searching the Web or sending a query to the developer or a support newsgroup.

This is a paradigm shift for the user who had to, in the past, depend upon (often) unresponsive software companies to come up with a solution. Today the support options have multiplied by a factor of thousands simply because every user and developer becomes part of the global “support team”. If even 10 percent of the Linux user community “gives back” from to support (and they do), then you are talking about almost one-and-a-half million people out there who are able (and willing) to help. No commercial software company can match that kind of support.

Linux usage is a lot at the server end, but do you foresee Linux competing with Windows on the desktop, especially as far as applications’ availability goes?

“Foresee” implies predicting something that will happen. A reality check is sorely required here. Many (if not all) students in universities abroad and in India are exposed to Unix at some point, simply because Unix is part of their curriculum. They use it for their everyday work. And given a chance, they would prefer continuing to use it in their professional lives.

Today Linux has given them that choice. Applications abound, and highly usable (and customizable) desktops such as KDE and Gnome make using Linux as simple as using, say, Windows. Given the standard usage patterns of computer users today (word processing, number crunching, e-mail, database, games, multimedia), a user can use a Linux machine to do everything that he would be able to do under another OS’at lower costs and with better stability and performance.

And people have begun making the choice.

If I were to make a prediction, I’d say that people are tired of the “you can choose any color you want, as long as it’s black” kind of scenario. They want to have a choice, and my prediction is that the 21st century is going to treat our current “one OS, one world” phase as a historical anomaly, not to be repeated. People will use various OSs on various hardware platforms. Linux, which is now available on more hardware platforms than any other OS I know of, will be one of these desktop OSs.

Which Linux apps are there on the desktop? On the server?

The same kind of apps you would find under, say, Windows 95. If there’s an application that fulfils a need under Windows, it is, or will be, available under Linux. Make yourself a list of all the apps you typically use under Windows today, and if you can’t find an equivalent app for Linux, I’d be very surprised.

Windows has always been a desktop OS. It’s only fairly recently that it has tried to position itself as a server. Linux, by virtue of its “parentage” (Unix), has always been an excellent and complete server. And unlike a product such as Windows NT, it’s complete in every respect’right out of the box.

And if you want to talk to applications beyond what Linux usually comes with by default, try Oracle, DB2, Sybase, ColdFusion, Netscape servers, Corel WordPerfect, StarOffice, and other mainstream backend server applications. More are being announced every day. Linux is no longer a new kid on the block for most of these industry heavyweights. It’s a serious contender for their revenue-driven attention.

Is there reason for smaller offices or companies to use Linux?

Yes, for the same reason that it makes sense to use it in large corporations. But there’s one added factor that makes Linux attractive to the small office, a factor that doesn’t play such a major role at the large corporate level’cost. Linux as an OS is either free or available as a CD distribution for a ridiculously low sum (around $50 or Rs 3,000). As PC Quest proved without a doubt in May 1998 with its Red Hat Linux distribution on its cover CD and tons of support and configuration articles, Linux can be deployed rapidly even in a small, non-technical, non-Unix-savvy company, and can be their office or e-mail or Internet proxy or fax or print server, and more. All for the cost of the media the OS came on.

Is there considerable student usage? Do you expect student usage to translate to increasing corporate Linux usage later?

Yes. I have mentioned this earlier, and I cannot stress the importance of this enough. Unix and linux is deployed extensively in colleges. Today, allowed to make the choice, your employees can use Linux which gives them the same stable environment they worked with as students. And a smart corporation will know that this translates to lower training and re-training requirements, more productivity and happier users.

Is low-end-hardware usage capability really a major advantage against NT/2000?

It’s an undeniable advantage, especially in a country like India. Few companies can afford to “junk” their costly servers every year (or sometimes every few months) just to increase their performance or reliability.

But that’s not the only factor. Because of its low hardware requirements, Linux will beat many OSs on identical hardware platforms by a margin that no longer seems funny.

For example, to set up a Windows NT server in a 100-user environment, you would need a high-end server with at least 64 MB RAM (128 MB preferred) and running at a pretty high CPU speed. Now take the same hardware platform, put Linux on it, and you will see an improvement in performance and stability that’s unbelievable. The exciting thing is that this performance is not very different if you were to run it on a much lesser machine.

Now start adding functionality to the NT machine, say, a simple thing like e-mail. Adding MS Exchange to the server will drive this machine to its knees. Microsoft recommends double the hardware requirements for an NT server also running Exchange. Add an SQL server, and the nightmare grows.

At the same time, a Linux box with all these functions and more will happily continue to run on the same hardware platform, and will probably continue to out perform the NT box. And the best part is, in most cases, Linux would have had all these functions built-in, to begin with.

Do you feel that all this attention vendors like Intel, IBM, Compaq/Digital, Corel and Oracle are now paying to Linux is more due to anti-Microsoft sentiments than any real commercial interest?

Undeniably, the anti-Microsoft sentiment is a big factor today, and I think this is sad because it distracts from the real interest that these companies have in the Linux platform. Like I said, Linux is effectively Unix today, and Unix has been the platform that all these vendors have traditionally been in. Their association with Linux today is a natural outcome of this, rather than their fight with Microsoft.

Platforms like Linux and FreeBSD are going to do to the Unix market what large commercially-oriented organizations have failed to achieve in the past’unify the Unix front. Already efforts are on for cross-platform driver development. Write a driver for one Unix and it can be deployed on all Unixes. Applications are now becoming so easily portable that it pays for the vendors like Sun Microsystems and SCO to conform to at least part of the models Linux and FreeBSD are helping to establish.

Thanks to SAMBA, an OpenSource network layer for Linux and other Unixes, a Sun server can today mimic and completely replace a Windows NT server in the corporate environment, without any change at the user level. For all practical purposes, the users will still be connected to an NT server, except that this NT server magically performs much faster with no blue-screen crashes, or no data loses. Giants like IBM, Corel, Oracle Sun, SAP, HP and Compaq no longer treat Linux in a condescending or even disdainful way, they are actively working with the Linux community. And vendors like Compaq and Dell are now making Linux an OS option on their machines.

And all this has nothing to do with any anti-Microsoft sentiment. These are market-economics driven.

Isn’t Linus Torvalds’ call for “World Domination” a pointer toward another monopoly?

No, not at all. Linus himself called that statement a parody of another contender, but the Linux community, along with other communities, seem to have made it a rallying call. To understand it, you must reinterpret it. Linus didn’t mean “Linux will dominate”. He effectively meant, “choice will dominate.” You could say the statement applies to an anti-monopoly.

With so many Linux versions out there, isn’t it bad that Red Hat Linux is getting so much attention today with investment by Intel and Netscape? Won’t this lead to a fragmented Linux market?

No. Because the very phrase “so many Linux versions” is wrong. There’s only one Linux, and Linus and his merry men have that factor completely under control.

What you are referring to are Linux distributions and yes, there are lots of them. Which is good. Each of them attempts to give the user more functionality and ease of use by bundling more (and sometimes different) support programs, applications and utilities. Some of them sell these distributions commercially (Red Hat, Caldera, Slackware, SuSE), some give them completely free (Debian). Some are distributions based on other distributions (Mandrake is built on Red Hat, but with KDE bundled). Some distributions are not even distributions of their own, but because they were distributed in a particular way, with some additional functionality, gained a name for themselves (PCQ Linux is a classic example).

When one distribution comes up with something good, other distributions may adopt it. This was the case of the RPM distribution package system developed by Red Hat, which has been adopted by Caldera and SuSE.

But no developer works with a single distribution in mind. For example, StarOffice and ApplixWare, the best-selling office suites for Linux, happily work on any Linux distribution.

With Red Hat getting so much attention today because of the Intel/Netscape investment, Linux is the gainer. This will again be the case soon when Caldera announces similar deals with new investors.

All this is good for Linux because it solidifies the trust corporate planet Earth will have in Linux.

So what’s the final verdict ‘ replace Windows with Linux?

If I were a jeans-wearing, long-haired, coffee-addicted hacker, the kind of image many people used to attribute to Linux people, I’d say “of course”. But I am not. I am a suit-wearing, trim-haired fruit-juice drinking corporate consultant, and I would be shown the door if I were to make suggestions like that to a client.

No one wants another monopoly. We have had enough of that. But what I would like to see is choice, and people using it.

I myself use both Windows and Linux on my desktop. No desktop/notebook computer in our company has only Windows or only Linux on it’you can choose your environment while booting. We use Windows as well as Linux because our clients use Windows as well as Linux (or Unix). There are some things you can do under Windows that you cannot do under Linux (yet), like playing some heavy-duty games.

But even that’s changing fast. The world’s favorite shoot-them-up is called Quake, and it runs better under Linux than Windows (where it was first published).

Giving Linux a try is no crime, and if you like it and are more productive with it, more power to you. If you are more comfortable with your Macintosh or your Wintel PCs, by all means use them, too. The end justifies the means. And more productivity translates to revenue for corporations. And in the end, that’s what this is all about.

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