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Linux: Looking Past the Rhetoric

You can tell that Microsoft is scared about something when the company can't stop talking about it. On the client side, the software giant is so nervous about the amazing advances made by Apple Computer with its iPod portable audio player and iTunes Music Store that the company recently spent hundreds of millions of dollars rejuvenating Windows XP with a variety of digital media updates that likely will prove more confusing than exciting to many consumers. On the enterprise side, long-time nemeses such as IBM and Novell have rallied around the open-source Linux standard in their latest bid to outflank Microsoft's server products. Predictably, Microsoft has come out firing.

Microsoft's public stance regarding Linux has changed a lot over the years, but its current posturing finally matches what the company has admitted privately for years: Linux is taking business away from other OSs, and it's only a matter of time before it starts eating into Microsoft's bottom line. To respond, the company's executives--especially Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Chief Technical Officer (CTO) Craig Mundie--have begun addressing Linux issues frankly in speeches, interviews, and meetings. And of course, Microsoft believes that its comprehensive server product portfolio--Windows Server System--is a match for anything the open-source world can offer.

The latest volley arrived last week in the form of an email ostensibly written by Ballmer (but more likely written by others and approved by Ballmer) in which he addressed IT executives about the Linux threat. Parroting many of the points the company has tried to publicize through its "Get the Facts" advertising campaign, Ballmer pointed out that Windows provides numerous advantages over Linux. Let's examine some of these advantages.

A Long-Term Cost Advantage
Open-source backers have used the "no cost" aspect of Linux as a bargaining chip for years, but the truth is far more subtle. Even if an enterprise is able to obtain a Linux OS at no cost, the true cost of such a system must include service and maintenance; Microsoft has argued that, here, the cost argument breaks down in its favor. In his email message, Ballmer touted the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) advantage of Windows over Linux, and noted that "all of the major Linux vendors and distributors (including HP, IBM, Novell \[SUSE and Ximian\], and Red Hat) have begun charging hefty premiums for must-have items such as technical service and support, product warranties, and licensing indemnification." Employee training is also more expensive with Linux, Ballmer claims.

A major enterprise that switches from Windows to Linux would experience costs three to four times greater than if the company had upgraded to the latest Windows versions, while taking three times as long to complete, according to an independent Yankee Group study. I don't think that most Linux installations are (yet) coming at the expense of Windows. However, it's equally clear that this trend can't continue if Linux is to continue growing.

Better Security
Although people might chuckle at the notion, Ballmer claims that Windows is more secure than Linux. He says that "the four \[biggest\] Linux distributions have a higher incidence and severity of vulnerabilities and are slower than Microsoft to provide security updates," and I'm sure that's true. But it's also true that the open-source Apache Web server--a product that's used by far more Web sites than is Microsoft IIS--has suffered from far fewer and less debilitating attacks than has IIS.

Open-source advocates question some of Microsoft's statistics. For example, although it's true that Windows Server suffers from fewer critical security flaws than, say, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, part of the reason is that Microsoft downplays flaws on Windows Server because the default behavior of that system differs from other Windows versions. If you determine differently what constitutes a critical flaw, they argue, the Windows Server advantage is imagined.

Intellectual Property Indemnification
The oddest claim Ballmer makes concerns intellectual property indemnification. Here, Ballmer plays on the fear, uncertainty, doubt (FUD) principle: If you use Linux, you might be sued.

My Take on the Debate
My gut feeling about Linux is that it will provide an excellent upgrade solution for two main audiences: Those environments that run legacy, proprietary UNIX systems and want to take advantage of the commodity nature and performance of the x86 platform, and those environments that need what I call networking infrastructure services--DHCP, DNS, Web serving, file serving, and such. It's unlikely that most Windows shops will wholeheartedly jump ship and migrate to Linux across the board because doing so is typically extremely expensive in the long run.

Microsoft has done a lot of work to enable UNIX-to-Windows migrations and provide cross-platform interoperability with some non-UNIX legacy systems, such as mainframes. Although I don't feel that many UNIX shops ultimately will port their applications to Windows and not Linux, it's possible that some of them will move at least some of their infrastructure to Windows in the future.

Regardless, the simple answer is that we live in a heterogeneous world and will continue to do so. Rather than fling abuse at the other camp, I'd rather see Microsoft wake up to reality and learn to work with Linux. Increasingly, its customers are turning to Linux for good reasons. It's time Microsoft buried the hatchet.

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