Are You Ready to Switch to Linux and Open Source Software?
Don't ask if Linux and open source are ready for your business -- ask yourself if your business is ready for them.
Over a year ago, I wrote a column about the small and midsize market and Linux. Large enterprises were shifting many server functions to Linux and imploring their developers to understand and embrace open source development practices. I argued that there was never a better time for smaller companies to consider Linux and open source software.
The market didn't seem to move as quickly as I thought it should. Despite the fact that Linux had matured considerably, that all the major hardware vendors were promoting Linux and Red Hat, and that Novell had hundreds of ISVs lined up and supporting its distributions, the market didn't react. A number of factors have made the switch to Linux a challenge many were not ready to conquer, and I'll explore what I believe to be the top three:
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1. Expertise: It doesn't matter how bright your IT staff is, if they have spent their careers installing and managing Microsoft-based systems, their experiences don't translate well to Linux. It would be similar to what you see happen when die-hard Windows users try to use a Mac. They can work through it, but it isn't pretty to watch. The reason larger organizations could make the transition to Linux is that the majority of them were transitioning from Unix platforms, and Linux is a Unix-like operating system. While there are differences between Unix variants, the threshold to make the change was not daunting for your average, Unix-skilled IT professional.
2. Cost: A compelling reason to make a change in your computing architecture is to gain cost savings. If you happen to be using a proprietary Unix platform, the cost argument is significant. You can run Linux on low-cost, industry-standard x86 servers. Sun Microsystems has felt this argument acutely. Large financial institutions did the math and found that they no longer needed to be locked into expensive Solaris/Sparc-based systems. Other Unix vendors, also feeling the pinch, made sure their relations were strong with the two major Linux players (Red Hat and Novell/SUSE) and invested more effort on promoting their x86 based systems in places where they were seeing erosion of their Unix business.
This cost argument is less compelling when you are migrating from a Windows-based environment. You already have the option of using low-cost servers, so unless the maintenance and support fees are significantly lower, you just aren't compelled to switch. It turns out that annual fees for Linux-based systems can run about 70% of the same fees for a Windows-based system. How do you capitalize on a 30% savings when you don't have the expertise in-house to deploy and manage this new platform? All of your savings (and then some) could be eaten up in the learning curve.
3. Application Availability: While all of the major Linux players can hand you a long list of enterprise applications that are now running on Linux, it turns out that that list does not necessarily meet the needs of a small to medium-sized enterprise. It also turns out that with the ongoing improvements in software as a service, you now have the option of using more of the horizontal applications as a service. Your needs for e-mail, CRM, sales-force automation, and general accounting can easily be met without worrying about the platform at all. The hundreds, if not thousands, of unique software packages that appeal to your business are the ones that have not been ported to Linux. They could still be running on UnixWare or NetWare, or you may have even grown your own. Porting an application is not cheap for you or an ISV.
In spite of these factors, industry analysts and the venture community are bullish on the small and midsize sector as a market for Linux and open source software. More IT talent is coming out of our schools with Linux expertise, and major vendors are increasing their emphasis on this segment. Watch this space for encouraging news.
Paula Hunter has more than 20 years of experience in high-tech marketing and business development. She currently consults with software companies, assisting them in their go-to-market strategies in the Linux and open source marketplace. Most recently, Hunter served as VP of marketing at Collax Inc. (a Linux-based server solution for small and midsize businesses) and as marketing and business development director with OSDL, a global consortium of leading technology companies dedicated to accelerating the adoption of Linux.