by July 7, 2001 0 comments

The days of “one
size fits all” are gone. No one (apart from maybe Microsoft) is
actually propagating the one-OS idea anymore. IS people are more
concerned about using the right tools for the right job. Their
biggest concern is inter-operation between various platforms, and
OSs like Solaris (on Sun machines), OS/400 (on IBM AS/400 systems),
and others recognize and cater to this. As does Linux, which happily
cooperates with just about any OS under the Sun, including

Now you know that the phrase “switching to
Linux” is not really appropriate. A company should start using Linux
in conjunction with other operating systems.

Linux has a lot to offer to business
users-stability, completeness, and support. These are three major
issues for any corporation that needs to depend on its

Linux, like other Unixes, offers this because of
its mature background-Unix has been around for almost three decades
and has matured in this time. It’s still the OS of choice for anyone
who values uptimes of months and years rather than days or
(hopefully) weeks.

Rapid cost escalation because of incompleteness
of an OS is another factor-Linux is so complete that in many cases
you just don’t need to buy or acquire anything else to deploy it.
Other OSs (even many commercial Unixes) tend to give you the
barebones, then make you pay heavily for required add-ons and

Finally, when problems crop up, they usually do
so at seriously inconvenient times. At that time, it’s important to
be able to ask for help and get it-fast. No commercial company on
earth can even come close to rivaling the kind of support you can
get for Linux today-mainly because the support is largely Internet
based, and knows no working hours. You can be in direct touch with
the developers rather than fight your way through voice-menu layers,
on-hold music, and “working hours”. Added to that, the source code
for just about everything under Linux (including the OS itself) is
available in case you want to fix things yourself. And with the
bonus of more and more Linux-oriented commercial companies coming
into the picture, it all adds up very nicely.

So why would a company want to deploy Linux?
Simple, because it’s stable, complete and extremely well

What kind of
organizations are using Linux in India?

The spread of
companies using Linux today has now become too wide to classify. We
have seen multi-national electronics giants, huge public sector
corporations, software firms, massive architectural firms, donor
agencies, chartered accountants, textile designers, training
institutes, grocery stores, machinery manufacturers, and mail-order
companies deploy Linux with great success.

For What?>>>…

Just like in the
rest of the world, there are three levels of deployment Linux is
witnessing today in India.
The first level is (as one would expect) as a server.
This can be both as an Internet/intranet server or a traditional
file server. Due to its ability to emulate just about any network OS
available today, Linux can be a Unix server, a Windows NT server or
a Novell NetWare server-end users wouldn’t even know that they are
connected to a Linux box.

The second level is development. As Linux in
effect is Unix, software developed under Linux will run under just
about any Unix available today. Because of the drastic difference in
hardware requirements (Linux can run on a low-end 386/486 and still
perform similar to a high-end workstation), Linux enables people to
develop on of low-cost platforms for eventual deployment under a
“big” Unix system. In India, where costs and rapid obsolescence of
hardware can play havoc with a company’s finances, this makes for an
attractive proposition.

The third level is at the user level. This is
relatively new, but has been gaining momentum. At this level, end
users use Linux as their main operating systems, working under X
Windowing environment on a desktop very similar to, but quite often
better than the kind offered by other OSs. Applications are
available by the ton now. Even commercial ones. Full office suites
priced at a tenth of what they would cost under other OSs,
communication programs, utility programs, multimedia applications
and games-you name it and it’s available. If a company wishes to
give their users functionality similar to what they would have under
another OS, then they can do so at very low cost, and with added
stability and manageability.

Can a company
expect support for Linux? And from which

One of the major FUD
(Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) weapons used against Linux (and other
Unixes for that matter) has been “lack of support”. Not even Linux’s
worst detractors bother using this factor anymore, and for good
reason-it’s clear that the support Linux enjoys is as good, if not
better, than the support any commercial OS out there enjoys.

The cycle of “put out bad software, have users
suffer, make them pay for support” has been broken by a model of
support that Linux helped introduce-responsibility for one’s
product. If the product fails to perform the task it’s supposed to,
the developers cannot and will not pass the buck. They will fix the
problem, often working closely with the end-user. This makes for
better products than we have been exposed to, throughout the past

Today everyone is connected in some fashion or
the other. E-mail is a massive enabler, and often the preferred way
of communication. So is the World Wide Web. Most commercial outfits
today rely on this medium to support their users.

Linux is no different. But unlike a company that
works nine to five, a Linux user facing a problem is usually able to
get a solution in a matter of minutes, or at most, a couple of
hours, simply by searching the Web or sending a query to the
developer or a support newsgroup.

This is a paradigm shift for the user who had
to, in the past, depend upon (often) unresponsive software companies
to come up with a solution. Today the support options have
multiplied by a factor of thousands simply because every user and
developer becomes part of the global “support team”. If even 10
percent of the Linux user community “gives back” from to support
(and they do), then you are talking about almost one-and-a-half
million people out there who are able (and willing) to help. No
commercial software company can match that kind of

Linux usage
is a lot at the server end, but do you foresee Linux competing with
Windows on the desktop, especially as far as applications’
availability goes?

“Foresee” implies
predicting something that will happen. A reality check is sorely
required here. Many (if not all) students in universities abroad and
in India are exposed to Unix at some point, simply because Unix is
part of their curriculum. They use it for their everyday work. And
given a chance, they would prefer continuing to use it in their
professional lives.

Today Linux has given them that choice.
Applications abound, and highly usable (and customizable) desktops
such as KDE and Gnome make using Linux as simple as using, say,
Windows. Given the standard usage patterns of computer users today
(word processing, number crunching, e-mail, database, games,
multimedia), a user can use a Linux machine to do everything that he
would be able to do under another OS-at lower costs and with better
stability and performance.

And people have begun making the choice.

If I were to make a prediction, I’d say that
people are tired of the “you can choose any color you want, as long
as it’s black” kind of scenario. They want to have a choice, and my
prediction is that the 21st century is going to treat our current
“one OS, one world” phase as a historical anomaly, not to be
repeated. People will use various OSs on various hardware platforms.
Linux, which is now available on more hardware platforms than any
other OS I know of, will be one of these desktop

Which Linux
apps are there on the desktop? On the server?

The same apps you
would find under, say, Windows 95. If there’s an application that
fulfils a need under Windows, it is, or will be, available under
Linux. Make yourself a list of all the apps you typically use under
Windows today, and if you can’t find an equivalent app for Linux,
I’d be very surprised.

Windows has always been a desktop OS. It’s only
fairly recently that it has tried to position itself as a server.
Linux, by virtue of its “parentage” (Unix), has always been an
excellent and complete server. And unlike a product such as Windows
NT, it’s complete in every respect-right out of the box.

And if you want to talk to applications beyond
what Linux usually comes with by default, try Oracle, DB2, Sybase,
ColdFusion, Netscape servers, Corel WordPerfect, StarOffice, and
other mainstream backend server applications. More are being
announced every day. Linux is no longer a new kid on the block for
most of these industry heavyweights. It’s a serious contender for
their revenue-driven attention.

Is there
reason for smaller offices or companies to use

Yes, for the same
reason that it makes sense to use it in large corporations. But
there’s one added factor that makes Linux attractive to the small
office, a factor that doesn’t play such a major role at the large
corporate level-cost. Linux as an OS is either free or available as
a CD distribution for a ridiculously low sum (around $50 or Rs
3,000). As PC Quest proved
without a doubt in May 1998 with its Red Hat Linux distribution on
its cover CD and tons of support and configuration articles, Linux
can be deployed rapidly even in a small, non-technical,
non-Unix-savvy company, and can be their office or e-mail or
Internet proxy or fax or print server, and more. All for the cost of
the media the OS came on.

Is there
considerable student usage? Do you expect student usage to translate
to increasing corporate Linux usage later?

Yes. I have
mentioned this earlier, and I cannot stress the importance of this
enough. Unix and linux is deployed extensively in colleges. Today,
allowed to make the choice, your employees can use Linux which gives
them the same stable environment they worked with as students. And a
smart corporation will know that this translates to lower training
and re-training requirements, more productivity and happier

low-end-hardware usage capability really a major advantage against

It’s an undeniable
advantage, especially in a country like India. Few companies can
afford to “junk” their costly servers every year (or sometimes every
few months) just to increase their performance or

But that’s not the only factor. Because of its
low hardware requirements, Linux will beat many OSs on identical
hardware platforms by a margin that no longer seems

For example, to set up a Windows NT server in a
100-user environment, you would need a high-end server with at least
64 MB RAM (128 MB preferred) and running at a pretty high CPU speed.
Now take the same hardware platform, put Linux on it, and you will
see an improvement in performance and stability that’s unbelievable.
The exciting thing is that this performance is not very different if
you were to run it on a much lesser machine.

Now start adding functionality to the NT
machine, say, a simple thing like e-mail. Adding MS Exchange to the
server will drive this machine to its knees. Microsoft recommends
double the hardware requirements for an NT server also running
Exchange. Add an SQL server, and the nightmare grows.

At the same time, a Linux box with all these
functions and more will happily continue to run on the same hardware
platform, and will probably continue to out perform the NT box. And
the best part is, in most cases, Linux would have had all these
functions built-in, to begin with.

Do you feel
that all this attention vendors like Intel, IBM, Compaq/Digital,
Corel and Oracle are now paying to Linux is more due to
anti-Microsoft sentiments than any real commercial

Undeniably, the
anti-Microsoft sentiment is a big factor today, and I think this is
sad because it distracts from the real interest that these companies
have in the Linux platform. Like I said, Linux is effectively Unix
today, and Unix has been the platform that all these vendors have
traditionally been in. Their association with Linux today is a
natural outcome of this, rather than their fight with

Platforms like Linux and FreeBSD are going to do
to the Unix market what large commercially-oriented organizations
have failed to achieve in the past-unify the Unix front. Already
efforts are on for cross-platform driver development. Write a driver
for one Unix and it can be deployed on all Unixes. Applications are
now becoming so easily portable that it pays for the vendors like
Sun Microsystems and SCO to conform to at least part of the models
Linux and FreeBSD are helping to establish.

Thanks to SAMBA, an OpenSource network layer for
Linux and other Unixes, a Sun server can today mimic and completely
replace a Windows NT server in the corporate environment, without
any change at the user level. For all practical purposes, the users
will still be connected to an NT server, except that this NT server
magically performs much faster with no blue-screen crashes, or no
data loses. Giants like IBM, Corel, Oracle Sun, SAP, HP and Compaq
no longer treat Linux in a condescending or even disdainful way,
they are actively working with the Linux community. And vendors like
Compaq and Dell are now making Linux an OS option on their

And all this has nothing to do with any
anti-Microsoft sentiment. These are market-economics

Isn’t Linus
Torvalds’ call for “World Domination” a pointer toward another

No, not at all.
Linus himself called that statement a parody of another contender,
but the Linux community, along with other communities, seem to have
made it a rallying call. To understand it, you must reinterpret it.
Linus didn’t mean “Linux will dominate”. He effectively meant,
“choice will dominate.” You could say the statement applies to an

With so many
Linux versions out there, isn’t it bad that Red Hat Linux is getting
so much attention today with investment by Intel and Netscape? Won’t
this lead to a fragmented Linux market?

No. Because the very
phrase “so many Linux versions” is wrong. There’s only one Linux,
and Linus and his merry men have that factor completely under

What you are referring to are Linux
distributions and yes, there are lots of them. Which is good. Each
of them attempts to give the user more functionality and ease of use
by bundling more (and sometimes different) support programs,
applications and utilities. Some of them sell these distributions
commercially (Red Hat, Caldera, Slackware, SuSE), some give them
completely free (Debian). Some are distributions based on other
distributions (Mandrake is built on Red Hat, but with KDE bundled).
Some distributions are not even distributions of their own, but
because they were distributed in a particular way, with some
additional functionality, gained a name for themselves (PCQ Linux is
a classic example).

When one distribution comes up with something
good, other distributions may adopt it. This was the case of the RPM
distribution package system developed by Red Hat, which has been
adopted by Caldera and SuSE.

But no developer works with a single
distribution in mind. For example, StarOffice and ApplixWare, the
best-selling office suites for Linux, happily work on any Linux

Red Hat getting so much attention today because of the
Intel/Netscape investment, Linux is the gainer. This will again be
the case soon when Caldera announces similar deals with new

All this is good for Linux because
it solidifies the trust corporate planet Earth will have in

So what’s the
final verdict-replace Windows with Linux?

If I
were a jeans-wearing, long-haired, coffee-addicted hacker, the kind
of image many people used to attribute to Linux people, I’d say “of
course”. But I am not. I am a suit-wearing, trim-haired fruit-juice
drinking corporate consultant, and I would be shown the door if I
were to make suggestions like that to a client.

No one wants another monopoly. We
have had enough of that. But what I would like to see is choice, and
people using it.

I myself use both Windows and
Linux on my desktop. No desktop/notebook computer in our company has
only Windows or only Linux on it-you can choose your environment
while booting. We use Windows as well as Linux because our clients
use Windows as well as Linux (or Unix). There are some things you
can do under Windows that you cannot do under Linux (yet), like
playing some heavy-duty games.

But even that’s changing fast. The
world’s favorite shoot-them-up is called Quake, and it runs better
under Linux than Windows (where it was first published).

Giving Linux a try is no crime,
and if you like it and are more productive with it, more power to
you. If you are more comfortable with your Macintosh or your Wintel
PCs, by all means use them, too. The end justifies the means. And
more productivity translates to revenue for corporations. And in the
end, that’s what this is all about.

Atul Chitnis is a
technology consultant with C&B Consulting and has
used Linux since 1993

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