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Enterprise Users, Keep Your Options Open

Linux is an excellent choice

I've always been fond of the saying "There are no absolutes" because I find the irony appealing. You see, despite being the editor-in-chief of a leading Linux magazine, I don't believe there's a best choice in operating systems other than the one that works best for you. Before you brand me a heretic let me state my bias by saying I think Linux is an excellent choice in many cases, in fact more than is actually used - Web Services or point-of-sale anyone? Furthermore I subscribe to the same logic for software and think there's seldom if ever a piece of software that serves every situation. Enterprises have many architecture choices these days; problems arise when you have no choice.

Anyway, last fall I delivered a presentation to a group of hospital CIOs on Linux as a desktop operating system and OpenOffice.org as the alternative to Microsoft Office with Michael Tiemann from Red Hat, a representative from Novell who had spearheaded its internal Linux desktop migration, and an IBM representative. During the previous session these IT executives had "roughed up" the presenter because they resented being locked into his company's product. I came to find out that in hospitals there's one large player who's the dominant provider of healthcare management software that operates without significant competition. These executives lashed out at the presenter over issues associated with support, lack of features, poor integration with other systems and of course cost. In other words they had been dictated a solution and gotten on board with it and then resented their choice and the actions of the vendor. After our presentation I had a chance to speak with one of the people in the audience, a vocal antagonist of said vendor, and asked him if he would be willing to move his organization to another system. His answer surprised me. He said, "No," he would continue to use the products because he didn't have a choice. There was simply no viable alternative to the system.

I wonder what the quantifiable costs of this decision are annually or over five years.

Contrast this situation to Open Source software. Open Source solutions operate on the premise that protocols and code should adhere to the philosophy of openness. In software that means the code can be shared and altered and network protocols and file formats are documented so that everything can interoperate with other operating systems and programs. This can cause a real problem when most of the world seems to do business using Microsoft Office or delivers multimedia that can only be viewed with Windows Media Player.

If you're a vendor, opening your precious intellectual property can be a scary proposition since you have nothing to keep your customers captive. Or do you? If you take out proprietary lock-in you are left with service; this appeals to me because as a consumer I have leverage since I have a myriad purchase options. This is a sentiment that might be foreign to you if you're a Microsoft user. How often have you called Microsoft up and said, "I'm tired of viruses. Can you just dump this silly ActiveX stuff?" or "Can you please add tab-based browsing to IE like the Mozilla Foundation and Opera have done?"

Freedom of choice is also appealing to countries like China and in South America where they can choose to spend IT dollars locally by paying systems integrators to support Open Source software rather than pay royalties that do nothing for the local economy. In June the Norwegian minister of modernization Morten Andreas Meyer declared, "Proprietary formats will no longer be acceptable in communication between citizens and government." This is a trend especially among governments that will no longer condone proprietary technologies use of their own proprietary formats.

In this month's issues I am pleased to have articles that talk about choice as does Enterprise DB CEO Andy Astor in his editorial discussing the broader Open Source alternatives that fall outside the LAMP designation. Or Al Brisard's article on Sipfoundry (www.sipfoundry.com), an Open Source IP telephony consortium, which is an alternative choice to a favorite Open Source telephony solution, Asterisk (www.asterisk.org), highlighted by Rick Segrest in his case study. We even have Richard Stallman, the "father of the idea of openness," speaking out on the GPL and sharing his message of Open Source.

My belief or at least my challenge to IT decision makers and end users is to pick their technology carefully and not take the path of least resistance by continuing to renew contracts with vendors that don't offer choices. I personally see great risks arising for companies that won't stay nimble unless they turn a weather eye on their vendors. This is especially important as a number events loom that may not offer freedom of choice. These landmark events include Microsoft's anticipated release of Longhorn, Apple migrating to Intel, multiple operating systems on dual-core chips, a new open format for both OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Office, and Linux desktop solutions that improve every day.

We are at a tipping point where there's a way to the break away from the traditional solutions, which are being be tested by subscription-based desktop software models, multi-OS workstations, and data centers that are stocked with massively parallel processing on commodity hardware instead of mainframes. While this issue of LWM is supposed to be dedicated to Linux in the enterprise, the paramount issue in my mind is not to adopt Open Source but to adopt systems and software that offer you choices. I'm sure Linux does this but do other solutions you are considering or using offer the same?

More Stories By Mark R. Hinkle

Mark Hinkle is the Senior Director, Open Soure Solutions at Citrix. He also is along-time open source expert and advocate. He is a co-founder of both the Open Source Management Consortium and the Desktop Linux Consortium. He has served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxWorld Magazine and Enterprise Open Source Magazine. Hinkle is also the author of the book, "Windows to Linux Business Desktop Migration" (Thomson, 2006). His blog on open source, technology, and new media can be found at http://www.socializedsoftware.com.

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