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Considering the options of a business operating system

SMALL to medium-sized businesses have few viable options when it comes to operating systems. In fact, most SMEs believe there are only two.

As an alternative to Microsoft, Linux (pronounced lynnucks) comes in many versions (distributions), examples of which are Red Hat, Debian, Mandrake and SuSe, although literally dozens of Linux distributions are now available.

Due to its low cost and high reliability, the latter of which is critical in server applications, Linux has enjoyed reasonable success in the server environment. However, the system has achieved only limited popularity in the desktop operating system market. This is usually attributed to issues of complexity, functionality, compatibility and support.

However, as indicated in an article by Angus Kidman for the October 1 issue of ZDNet, “Is Linux taking over the enterprise?”, Linux stands to benefit from Microsoft’s switch to its new Licensing 6.0 model. As Mr Kidman says: “Quantifying this difference is challenging, but for companies seeking to cut costs, Linux has developed much greater appeal as a result of a decision by its major market rival”.

This has provided many of those who are developing Linux distributions with the op-portunity to expand their efforts to acquire a greater slice of the desktop pie. These efforts include making Linux look and feel similar to more commonly used operating systems, developing competitive business software packages and improving compatibility with the file formats of other platforms.

Society of Linux Professionals (WA) vice-chairman, and managing director of Terminus Network Services, Jeremy Malcolm, said Linux had become a serious alternative to the Microsoft platform.

The use of Linux by SMEs provides many advantages, with total cost of ownership being of prime attraction, he said.

“Linux distributions are free of licensing fees,” Mr Malcolm said. “Although the use of Linux still requires some expenditure, such as those involving configuration and support, the TCO is still considerably lower than that of equivalent Microsoft software.”

Mr Malcolm’s assertion is supported by a recent CyberSource survey, which found the TCO of a Linux-based operating environment was between 25 per cent and 34 per cent less than that of a Microsoft equivalent. This included not only the software itself, but also configuration and support costs.

Mr Malcolm also addressed common criticisms levelled at Linux distributions. Such criticisms include the claim Linux was too complex for the average desktop user, was lacking in useful applications and was difficult to obtain support for.

“Early on these claims may have been the case, but recently this has changed,” Mr Malcolm said.

“The graphical user interfaces used by Linux, namely KDE and Gnome, can now be configured to look and act like Windows and MacOS. This makes the use of Linux no more complicated than either of these platforms.

“Linux’s application support is also very good. Linux supports both the OpenOffice.org and StarOffice productivity suites. OpenOffice.org is free and StarOffice has a modest licensing fee attached.

“Both support Microsoft file formats very well. Web browsing is covered by the Mozilla browser, which is also free.”

He said the perception that Linux products lacked support was incorrect.

“There are numerous local companies that provide support for Linux, many of which are members of the Society of Linux Professionals (WA),” Mr Malcolm said.

Clearly, Linux is gathering momentum as an operating environment worthy of serious consideration by business enterprises.

Recent research by IT industry analyst IDC suggests that spending on Linux will increase from $80 million to $280 million over the next five years. The research also found that shipping of Linux-based PCs increased by 50 per cent in 2001, mainly to the Asia/Pacific region.

Those enterprises contemplating a migration to Linux should do some research of their own before making the change. Although issues of Linux useability, compatibility and functionality appear to be moving gradually towards a point of resolution, one needs to remember that Microsoft has achieved its 90 per cent plus dominance of the desktop market because it already provides these things.

It is also important to note that Linux’s traditional stability advantage over Microsoft is quickly being eroded.

As David Braue notes in a recent Bulletin article (on-line): “Worse still for Linux, with the release of Windows XP last year, Microsoft finally produced a mass-market OS that’s more or less crash proof. Stability was always a selling point for Linux, but when XP came to the party, Linux suddenly lost its bragging rights”.

Assuming Linux is able to bring simplicity and functional versatility to the desktop, its only significant advantage over Microsoft now is in the area of cost.

However, in a competitive business environment where the margin between success and failure is often fine, the security and familiarity many enterprises have developed with the Microsoft platform may be of more importance than cost considerations alone.

So when Microsoft poses the question: ‘where do you want to go today?’, the answer needs to be the subject of careful contemplation for many enterprises.

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