Opinion: Winning the Linux gamble

I'm an equal opportunity employer. Really I am. I'm prepared to consider Linux as a serious operating alternative to anything...

I'm an equal opportunity employer. Really I am. I'm prepared to consider Linux as a serious operating alternative to anything available from Microsoft and, so it seems, do an increasing number of large businesses, encouraged by the power of IBM.

It's been almost three years since Bob Young gave me my own Red Hat to wear. Since then - and regardless of attempts by You Know Who to marginalise the operating system as a geeky fad - Linux has found the industry support it needs to launch into the enterprise server market.

Most noticeably, Oracle (9i) has said that it is now giving Linux equal status in a market it now sees as being split three ways - between Windows, Linux and Solaris.

This is an enormous boost for Linux fortunes, as the OS now offers the credibility that goes with the support of both IBM and Oracle, an event that finally dismisses any suggestion that Linux is a risky "unsupported" environment attractive to only the very brave or the very foolish IS director.

And it's not just IBM and Oracle leading the charge. Linux continues to grow market share at around 30% a year.

Not so long ago I was having heated arguments with people about the potential for utility computing and cheap applications servers using Linux. The first of these is IBM's 21st century reinvention of "bureau computing".

This uses Linux Virtual Services, connecting customers to managed Linux-based applications on mainframes at e-business hosting centres. It looks set to revive one or more fundamental elements of the ASP concept that fell flat last year.

The second, the arrival of a wave of cheap server appliances running Linux instead of Windows, is still, I suspect, two years away. You could never really describe Sun as cheap - but the demand among businesses and governments to drive down the costs of computing is driving the agenda at a pace that is hard to ignore.

Tilting Microsoft off its comfortable perch is still going to be difficult, if only because half of the market is still owned by the company. The other Unix flavours of HP-UX and Solaris are more likely to be a victim of Linux ambitions before any serious pain is felt by Microsoft, which is busily developing Windows into a powerful enterprise OS and one good enough to take on any variant of Unix.

Perhaps in the end, the future of Linux can be seen as a huge game of poker with the future of enterprise computing represented by the chips. Buying a place at the table costs millions or even billions of dollars in development and marketing money, and only IBM, Sun, Oracle and Microsoft can really afford to play.

The winner may not be the company with the best hand. It could be the one with the best bluff.

Zentelligence: Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.

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