Enterprises are better off staying away from Linux and open source -- or at least thinking through the possible liabilities, argues guest columnist Rob Enderle.
Linux returns us to the days when the computer industry was a cottage industry, when programmers and engineers drove the industry and users were overwhelmed by the difficulties in getting what they wanted done. Linux is anything but a high-volume platform and applications are generally highly customized and more closely tied to the people who developed them than to the users that will live with the resulting software. This is not so different from the mainframe world we, for the most part, left behind us by the late 80s. Linux software is perceived as "free," which helps make it a strong counterculture platform. Most of the value, and cost, is on the hardware and services that surround it. This idea of attaching a low value to software is a throwback to the beginnings of computing, and only changed after a protracted fight between IBM and the U.S. government over unbundled hardware and software.
You can see why programmers love Linux: It gives them apparent power, control, freedom, and flexibility at a low initial cost. But this is a zero-sum game and when one group gains power another often loses it. Granting this kind power to any one group, particularly a staff function, is often not in the best interest of an enterprise, which needs to focus more on business needs, including time to market, and competitive advantage. Unless the business is a software business, putting much of the cost, talent, and control into the hands of software developers is generally inconsistent with business needs and company goals. Even in the case of a large software company, putting top human resources into the development of software for internal use, rather than developing a marketable product, would seem counter to running a successful business. We are in a period where specialization, not generalization, appears to separate the successful companies from those whose longevity is not so certain.
If you are in manufacturing, you likely have a policy to buy off-the-shelf manufacturing equipment whenever possible, because it is vastly less expensive than having custom machines installed. If you are in field services, you typically don't have custom trucks built, but buy from a large manufacturer and then make relatively minor changes to fit your specific needs. If you are a successful builder you ask your architect to minimize the custom components used so that you can maximize your profits. During the rapid growth of Linux during the Internet years, the idea of containing costs and minimizing risk was something that many seemed to forget. With the failure of the dot-coms the concept of solid business plans and solid cost containment practices are once again more like laws than suggestions, changing dramatically the way decisions are viewed and approved.
While I've seen a lot of discussion of Linux licensing, the general impression seems to be that most of it has little relevance to an IT organization in a company that is not, itself, in the software business. Recently SCO (formerly Caldera) began to change that perception and began to demonstrate what could easily become a nightmare for the Linux community. Whatever the outcome, it is clear that not enough consideration was put into the protection of intellectual property in the creation of this platform and that, currently, much of the risk seems to be getting passed downstream to enterprise users of the product, rather than upstream to the distributors. SCO earlier this year issued a letter to 1,500 of the world's largest corporations, warning that Linux users might be liable for intellectual property violations in Linux. The warning is contrary to the normal course of things, where vendors protect their customers from intellectual property liability. (Users of Linux from IBM and Hewlett-Packard are more likely to be protected from SCO's lawyers; IBM is already the subject of a lawsuit by SCO, and the nature of the HP license provides HP's users with protection.)
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