IT directors need to take a long, hard look at their heterogeneous systems infrastructure and put in place steps to reduce the escalating costs that are in part driven by the number of incumbent operating systems in the environment.
Very few IT directors ever go out to purchase an operating system, but it is the provision or development of services to meet the business objectives and requirements that is the main driver.
Above all else, the open source operating system Linux provides the opportunity to reduce the number of platforms supported by removing the need for close coupling between the operating system and specific hardware.
Let's be clear though: Linux, while offering more control, good resilience and an end to hardware supplier lock-in, is no universal remedy. It presents the same issues as the deployment and maintenance of other platforms, and Microsoft Windows continues to be an effective alternative.
In the short term, adding Linux to the mix of IT systems can increase skill requirements and complexity. It then becomes imperative that management processes and administration tools are in place to allow the centralised control of the IT environment. But an organisation that commits itself to just Windows and Linux will over time reduce the skill sets required for management and administration.
Everybody now accepts that Linux in the enterprise environment is not free. However, calculating the total cost of ownership involves considering many variables and direct comparison is difficult as each organisation is different. Generalised total cost of ownership studies are often generated by those in the Unix, Windows or Linux camps with axes to grind.
IT management must retain its objectivity in selecting the most appropriate and cost effective operating system for the selected services and applications. In the end, as with any IT deployment, it hinges on the specific business and technical requirements of the organisation.
What is significant is that Linux is now a valid option for enterprise use.
But the patent protection regulation changes proposed by the European Union have the potential to cause further difficulties for the open source community. If the proposal is accepted in its current form it will allow patents to cover code, data structures and process descriptions.
The danger is that developers of open source software will find the cost of patent licensing prohibitively expensive. This will stifle code reuse and innovation, and commercial software suppliers may use the regulations to close down open source projects.
This should not detract from the fact that Linux has evolved into a dependable, enterprise-ready environment capable of meeting business and technical requirements.
The absence of accountability for Linux software can be a worry for many organisations, as its developers are difficult to pin down on issues of liability and the provision of warranties. There is also a concern about the future direction that the operating system might take. There is no guarantee that new kernel developments will cater for business needs.
The establishment of Linux versions with an enterprise focus and the availability of support from the Linux community, including the control and testing provided by the Open Source Development Lab, should diminish these concerns.
A number of technology trends in the IT industry have made Linux a leading contender for inclusion in an organisation's infrastructure. Intel-based architectures dominate the enterprise IT environment. The advancing performance of chips and the increasing use of blade technology make x86 hardware a feasible option for all data processing, even for large database and transactional applications. That Linux can run on this industry-standard hardware makes it a prime contender to replace proprietary Unix systems.
This hardware independence is especially important as organisations start to move into 64-bit systems. It is by no means certain which processor - Intel's Xeon and Itanium, AMD's Opteron or IBM's Power - will become the industry standard.
Being hardware agnostic gives users the flexibility to choose the system that provides the best performance and value now and in the future. This portability at last presents the IT director with the leverage to maximise the best price from hardware suppliers.
There is a continuing focus on doing more with less with the move to utility computing and the consolidation of servers to maximise utilisation. Linux allows the number of operating systems deployed in an organisation's infrastructure to be decreased, thus reducing the administration overhead of the IT environment. In addition, the connectivity features built into Linux allow integration with Microsoft, Novell and other networks, which can help with the implementation of a consolidation strategy.
Linux is not the only alternative. Microsoft Windows, while not being completely hardware-agnostic, does run on industry standard x86-based hardware.
The combination of Microsoft Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 offers an IT platform that is compelling for the enterprise user, especially with the focus on improved security, reliability, availability and scalability. Where Windows has a significant advantage is in the comprehensiveness of the software stack - developer tools, available functionality and integration - especially in the desktop environment. IT directors perceive one drawback: the on-going licensing costs.
An important reason why Linux has successfully evolved into an enterprise-ready operating system is the creation of a mutually beneficial ecosystem. The open source community and the commercial sector have adapted to each other and this has allowed the commercialisation of Linux to go from strength to strength.
The use of the open source software development model has produced efficient and robust code. The openness and flexibility surrounding Linux is particularly appealing to users in the public sector.
There are significant trigger points on the horizon for many IT directors including the withdrawal of support for Windows NT 4.0, hardware replacement and the release of the next version of Windows code-named Longhorn. Linux is an alternative worthy of consideration as and when decisions on future operating system strategy become necessary.
Make no mistake, the era of open source development, with Linux as a leading exponent, is a reality.
Mark Blowers is senior research analyst at Butler Group