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Staring Down Linux

Everyone talks about Linux gaining ground. Redmond doesn't take threats lightly.
Some long-time Microsoft customers are staying open-minded about open source. FMC Corp. is evaluating alternatives to Unix for its SAP system, and it's looking at both Windows, which is widely used at the company, and Linux, which has been used more selectively. "There are still questions about whether a standardization on Windows across the board is a good thing," says Richard Powers, FMC's director of advanced technology and architecture. But, Powers says, it could cost more to manage a mixed Windows-Linux environment, given the need for two skill sets and, possibly, extra management tools, and that will factor into the decision. Progressive Casualty Insurance Co. uses Windows because it's "fast and easy to use," says IT manager Ryan Conlon, but he welcomes Linux as a potential alternative. "If Microsoft goes crazy on pricing, we'll do that," he says.

The price of Microsoft's newest version of Windows, released last week, is aimed squarely at Linux. With Small Business Server 2003, Microsoft knocked 60% off the price of its previous Small Business Server, introducing a standard edition for only $599, right between Red Hat's $349 basic edition (software only) and $799 standard edition (software plus phone support). "Put the Linux stack next to this and try to build the same functionality and flexibility," says Orlando Ayala, the senior VP in charge of Microsoft's push into the market for small and midsize businesses.

While many at Microsoft make it their mission to stamp out Linux, a smaller group is tasked with facilitating interoperability between Windows and its open-source competitor. Microsoft's Services for Unix product, a toolset and middleware that bridges Unix and Windows systems, serves the dual purpose of supporting Linux, too, and it actually won a best-in-show award at a Linux-industry trade show earlier this year. An upgrade is planned for January, but Microsoft officials haven't said how it will do a better job of supporting Windows-Linux interoperability.

The amount of work involved in getting Windows and Linux to work together depends on how the systems are being used, says Scott Handy, IBM's VP of worldwide Linux strategy and market development. A simple Linux file server that works with Windows files can be set up and managed with no sweat, he says. On the other end of the spectrum are the many commercial and internally developed applications that have been written for Windows but not ported to Linux. With those, Handy says, "there isn't interoperability" at all.

Boscov's is a case in point. Poole says his company has to run certain applications on Windows because no one has put in the hours to move them to Linux. Such apps "aren't going to move unless the system's rewritten," he says. "It's going to stay on a Windows platform."

IBM gets around the problem by offering customers more than 200 products--including its WebSphere middleware, DB2 database, Tivoli management tools, and Notes messaging system--that run on both Windows and Linux. If Microsoft were serious about interoperability, it would make its products available on Linux, too, Handy says. But he doesn't expect that to happen. "Microsoft certainly is not cooperating with the Linux movement," he says. "That's not in their best interest."

Reza Rooholamini, director of enterprise solutions for Dell, says Dell is able to bridge many of the gaps between Windows and Linux during its own product development. Sometimes, he says, that requires sitting down with Red Hat or Microsoft and discussing the need for certain standards to be supported in their software. "Once they understand our view and the need for it, they often abide," Rooholamini says. "Not always, but most of the time."

Taylor, meanwhile, is out pounding the pavement to better understand what Microsoft's customers and partners have to say about Linux and to incorporate their feedback into the company's strategy. In the last few weeks, he's been to Europe and Florida, and last week he was on his way to New Orleans, where Microsoft hosted its Worldwide Partners Conference. The goal, he says, is to be more customer- and partner-friendly.

Linux-friendly, however, will have to wait.

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