Linux on the march

Posted on December 9, 1999 
Filed Under CNET, Julian

By Julian Matthews

At the Fall Comdex in Las Vegas last month, Linus Torvalds, the spiritual leader of the open source movement, summed up the future of the Linux operating system in two words: “Penguins everywhere.”

Corel Corp chief executive Michael Cowpland echoed the statement, declaring that Linux’s time is now: “DOS had 10 years, Windows has had the last 10 years and now it’s time for Linux.”

Their confidence has been infectious. Linux has taken the computer world by storm in the past year. Many computer makers have begun to offer Linux as an alternative to Microsoft’s Windows NT, specifically as email and Web servers. But even as the new wave of the Linux decade is ushered in, not everyone is yelling “Surf’s up!” Critics’ pet peeve is that Linux has proved too unwieldy for most desktop users. They point to the lack of applications and a fragmented market, and wonder whether Linux can cut it on the enterprise.

Detractors aside, the push to popularize Linux in Asia has already begun, albeit on a slow but steady trot.

Red Hat Inc chairman and CEO Bob Young told CNET Asia that his company plans to set up a direct presence in Asia besides expanding channels and partnerships. Caldera Systems Inc Asia-Pacific regional director Kenneth Bergenthal said he also plans to set up one or more offices in Asia by next year.

Both companies mention Japan, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore as strong first choices, with India and China as possibilities for the future. “The effect of having so many open source OS users relying on Red Hat Linux across Asia is creating a lot of demand for us to expand our service offerings within those markets,” said Young.

A shifting of the Linux tide

Plans are also afoot to form partnerships to deploy Red Hat Linux 6.1 and Caldera’s OpenLinux 2.3 with major server manufacturers in the region. Bergenthal said Caldera already announced a tie-up with Fujitsu in September, while in Taiwan, Dell will be doing the same with its servers.

The Utah-based company also hoped to produce localized versions of its solutions for the Japanese and Korean markets. A Taiwanese version is already available.

Young pitched in that Red Hat is was also looking to produce similar localized versions of Red Hat Linux 6.1 for those markets and is aiming to ensure that all versions are binary compatible. “This requires a great deal of engineering precision and will take some time,” he said.

But Young noted that many small local Linux companies in Asia are either shipping Red Hat Linux directly, or are making minor modifications for local customers who are not as quality sensitive as the software company’s core customer base.

Young does not believe the availability of Linux in several flavors will fragment the market in Asia. “The various Linux-based OS are pretty consistent and highly compatible compared to Windows, where applications built on Windows 2000 cannot run on Windows NT, apps for NT cannot run on Windows 98, and so on.”

Young added that the popularity of Linux is not related to being “better” than Windows or the Mac OS. “It can be argued that for many applications, Red Hat Linux is not the ‘best’ operating system from a pure technology viewpoint. But open source operating systems enable users to do things they just cannot do with traditional proprietary binary-only OS,” he said.

Caldera’s Bergenthal said he expects “many announcements in coming months” from software and hardware vendors to suggest a shifting tide for the Linux movement.

He cited a survey of systems integrators (SIs) and value-added resellers (VARS) on a tour in the U.S. with IBM and Oracle recently. “Two-thirds of 470 SIs surveyed–comprising 60 percent Windows NT and 30 percent NetWare VARS/SIs–will build solutions for OpenLinux within the next six months,” he said.

A prolific penguin

Caldera is also not worried that rampant piracy-almost a culture in Asia-may depress the market for Linux in the region. “We will get together to educate and show how to get open source products without stealing,” he said.

Piracy is not an issue in the Linux realm, said Linus Lai, senior market analyst for International Data Corporation (IDC) Malaysia, mainly because license revenues are not the focus as it is with Windows NT.

“Let’s face it. If Linux were really dependent on license revenues, it wouldn’t have all the press attention that it is enjoying today. The value-added services that vendors, resellers and distributors can offer to the corporate sector are where the real money is,” he said.

Lai said IDC only began tracking Linux sales in Asia Pacific this year but assumes the highest demand would be in the largest IT markets including Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia. “Worldwide, Linux generated many unit sales but very little revenue compared with the major Server Operating Environment (SOE) platforms last year,” he said.

Lai added that Linux was the No. 1 SOE in terms of unit-volume growth in 1998 but revenue generated amounted to a miniscule US$31 million, compared to NT Server sales of more than US$1.3 billion.

Linux also claimed only 0.6% of the total revenues generated by SOEs. “There is a handful of suppliers, or distributors, of Linux, and our report reflects the combined unit sales and revenues generated by all major Linux distributors,” he said.

Unit sales for paid copies of Linux distributions, however, grew an astronomical 190.4% year-over-year. “Unpaid” copies shipped could have pushed up the figure significantly higher.

IDC attributed the rapid growth rate to extremely low cost, the relatively small base of units sold in 1997, and enthusiastic adoption of its use for Web-serving.

“We do not believe that Linux displaced units of Unix, Windows NT Server or NetWare in 1998. However, the situation could change this year. Several major vendors announced that they would offer Linux as a choice for channel-based server sales. IDC expects this trend to extend to nearly all major systems vendors by the year 2000,” he said.

Different strokes

Lai said that for large symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) servers, Unix has several functionality advantages over the Linux platform particularly in the areas of high-availability features, clustering, and journaling-file-system (JFS) recovery.

In the small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) marketspace, Lai believed the application service provider (ASP) model and the possible cheaper alternative combination of Linux/Sun’s StarOffice suite have yet to catch on.

“The ASP market is still in its hyped-up stage right now with a lot of vendor ‘push’. The real ASP customers are few and far between–usually large organizations with existing service contracts or outsourcing contracts. The SME market–which the Linux/StarOffice is more adapted for–has yet to understand the merits of the ASP model,” he said.

Lai said adoption would depend largely on rapidly educating the market about pricing models and total-cost-of-ownership (TCO). Microsoft’s intentions to offer Office using the ASP model may also compete with the Linux/StarOffice value proposal.

“The key success factor for Linux to be adopted on the desktop is if Microsoft ports its Office suite to Linux (which is unlikely.) So Linux has to continue to gather support from the likes of Corel and Lotus to tilt the balance,” he said.

In the education market, Lai doesn’t believe Linux near-free software model is enough to ensure adoption. “The Mac OS is strong in the education market because of Apple’s continual focus there. For Linux and its combined solutions to thrive there it needs dedicated professionals and vendors to push it. Pricing alone won’t do,” he said.

Lai also does not believe the differing flavors of Linux will dent the popularity of the OS. “Different flavors offer end users more choice with regards to vendor support and encourage competition. This is healthy and we can expect better service levels at lower costs to the end users. As long as Linus Torvalds and his team focus on maintaining version control, the industry is better off with different flavors.”

Malaysia’s Linux story

On the local front, a handful of companies and user groups are pushing Linux but the industry is hampered by limited resources and expertise.

In 1996, Abdul Rahman Johari co-founded the Malaysian-Linux (My-Linux) user group with friends and fellow enthusiasts. “Few people knew about Linux then. The turning point came in late 1998, when software giants Oracle, Sybase, Informix and others began porting their products on the OS,” he said.

In April this year, Abdul Rahman set up the Malaysian Linux Competency Center to fill the gap for Linux research, commercial support and solutions. “We’re doing R&D not only on Intel architecture, but on Alpha and UltraSPARC platforms. Right now, we’re working on a Web-based database solution,” he said.

He said Malaysia lacked support from the vendor companies for promotional efforts, and even familiarity with Unix in universities was not encouraged. “Without the user base and resources, it will take time for the industry to grow,” he said.

Abdul Rahman sees a future when more offices in Malaysia will be using thin clients running Linux-based enterprise apps that are customized, Web-enabled and completely virus-free. “Linux will hit the desktop real soon. Technology is moving towards that end, and time will prove it,” he said.

Two-year-old Linux-based systems integrator Magnifix Sdn Bhd got its first big break when it landed leading telco Telekom Malaysia in mid-1998 for an Intranet solution project. “In the early days, we had tons of problems mainly because of the hardware compatibility. But now since Red Hat and SuSE are compatible with most hardware, those problems are over,” said Meor A. Fauzi, Magnifix chief operating officer.

Magnifix currently also provides distributions, supports and training for both Red Hat and SuSE Linux and is the preferred solution provider for Oracle on Linux in Malaysia.

“Marketwise, Linux is still in the infant stage but things are starting to heat up. With most major computer companies supporting it, government and the corporations are starting to look into Linux as a solution,” said Meor whose company has completed over 150 government, corporate and university installations.

Meor said companies choose Linux because it is reliable, robust and scalable. “Still, there are people reluctant to switch because of the lack of user-friendliness. But things are improving in this area. KDE and GNOME are getting more user-friendly and SuSE 6.3 and Red Hat Linux 6.1 come with graphical installation sequences.”

He said the key lack is that not enough software applications are ported onto Linux, especially popular ones like the Adobe family and AutoCAD. “This a major turnoff for end users, specially in the corporate sector. Fortunately, major vendors like Oracle, CA, HP, Informix, Sun and Corel are porting over but it is not enough,” he said.

Meor said in Malaysia the tide could change with more extensive education, exhibitions and campaigns as most users are too firmly entrenched with present systems. He is confident, however, that Linux can capture at least 40 percent of the low-to-middle tier server market currently dominated by Windows NT in a few years’ time.

“Malaysia is one to two years behind the U.S. We can see that Linux is a major hit over there, so we can expect the wave to eventually reach our shores,” he said.

By then, presumably, the penguins will indeed be everywhere.

Published in CNET Asia, Dec 09, 1999 : Pg 1 | Pg 2 | Pg 3 | Pg 4 | Pg 5.

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