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Inflection Points

Inflection Points

Inflection points in mathematics are those points on a graph where its concavity changes. Andy Grove, founder of Intel, defined inflection points in the business world as events that change the way we think and act. And to that end Linux is most certainly the cause of an inflection point.

Linux is triggering many people to change the way they think and act with regards to computing. Over the last decade many enterprises have followed a few dominant IT vendors with commercial offerings and rarely hesitated about costs associated with their solutions. Now more enterprises are converting to a community-driven solution, Linux, with or without the help of IT vendors. In the U.S. a down economy and a tech bust may have been catalysts for this, but before that many computer users were thirsty for a better alternative. Also, since many people consciously or subconsciously realize information technology has raised productivity in businesses greatly over the last 25 years, it only stands to reason that their desire to improve that technology will be exceptionally strong. Linux provides a platform for more rapid accomplishment of that goal, which is why we see these inflection points in both desktop and server computing.

In server computing the notable inflection point is in the way that servers are being scaled. There was a time when those of us who installed servers looked at scaling server computing through the CISC/RISC-based mainframe - where bigger was simply that, bigger. Now as we look at supercomputing and scalable servers we use words like "grid," "blades," and "parallel processing." We can now add smaller, cheaper pieces of materials to make a larger, stronger, more efficient model.

Clustering is analogous to plywood, where tiny pieces of wood are glued together to form a larger, stronger board. Small processors are stitched together in clusters to form larger, more powerful computers that can deliver speeds at a better value (when measured by cost of computing cycles) than ever before. Linux as a supercomputing solution is showing significant gains in both the commercial and academic communities. Each year the TOP500 (www.top500.org) supercomputer organization publishes lists of the top 500 most powerful supercomputers, and in recent years more Linux clusters have crept into the results.

Today's desktop computing inflection points include the adoption of Linux as a desktop operating system, StarOffice as a business office suite, and thin-client computing as a common alternative to conventional desktop or thick-client PCs. If you go into 90% of the businesses in the world you will find a Microsoft Windows PC as the computing standard. People are seriously considering Linux desktops as an alternative, and some of those pioneers are implementing Linux in the enterprise - this represents serious changes in attitude. It's thrilling to see so many modifications in behavior resulting in more viable choices for accessing the Internet and sharing information. There is great interest in desktop computing because virtually everyone has access to a desktop computer and can see the changes firsthand, while in the server arena it's rare that end users see the mechanism that drives their Web and e-mail servers.

Linux users today are much like the pioneers who headed across the U.S. 200 years ago. Those of us who are interested in Linux are out in the plains fighting, with little support and a relatively small population. But after the word got out about the opportunity and freedom afforded by the frontier, more and more people traveled westward. Every day Linux pioneers are being joined by people who are becoming aware of the opportunities in Linux. These are the people who make well-informed choices, who are less risk adverse, who like to follow accepted conventional wisdom.

As people follow the lead of the Linux frontiersman, it will be interesting to see the results of these inflection points - whether it's Dell shipping more Linux PCs than Windows, or maybe the release of a Microsoft Linux version..., on second thought, this is about inflection points, not fairy tales.

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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