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Yes, it's replacing Unix, and it continues to inspire passion. But is the tipping point always a day away?

Long synonymous with “free,” at least in the minds of CFOs, Linux will acquire new associations in 2004 as the New Age mysticism that surrounds it gives way to significant momentum, increasing possibilities and strategic decisions aplenty. Linux, the computer operating system architected by Linus Torvalds and now continuously maintained and enhanced by a worldwide network of often passionate devotees, is fast closing in on (allegedly) more expensive, proprietary Unix-based operating systems from Sun Microsystems, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and others. Already solidly entrenched in the corporate mainstream from Wal-Mart to Morgan Stanley, Linux is also reportedly humming away on government computers in China, and the city of Munich recently opted for Linux over Microsoft as a desktop operating system for 14,000 municipal employees.

Forrester Research indicates that 17 percent of the 877 largest North American companies currently use Linux, and says it will gain so much ground in ’04 that CIOs will be challenged to keep it under control. A lawsuit brought by The SCO Group against IBM on intellectual-property grounds shows no sign of slowing the acceptance of Linux, as major IT vendors pledge to indemnify customers against any thorny legal rulings.

Today’s Promise

The choice of a computer operating system is generally not a debate CFOs wade into, but analysts warn that misconceptions about the true cost of Linux may create false expectations among the swath of C-level executives who set IT strategies. “Every time there’s an article in the New York Times trumpeting how much money some company saved with Linux, CFOs pressure their IT managers, wanting to know why they aren’t saving $10 million, too,” says Brian Richardson, program director at Meta Group. “Yet it’s important to remember that in a Fortune 500 data environment, Linux is basically another flavor of Unix. While it may be nominally free, you do have to pay for the hardware and software and the services that run on top of Linux.” ERP software, for example, is priced the same whether it runs on Linux or a proprietary system, and while Dell will happily ship a server that runs Linux or one that runs some other system, either way the box costs what it costs. Claims of a free lunch, says Richardson, are greatly exaggerated.

Not that he is a Linux naysayer. “We’ve noted continual improvements in the Linux kernel, as well as technological improvements in the hardware, in terms of Intel-based server performance and pricing,” Richardson says. “Linux is a bottom-up strategy much the way Windows was five years ago. And it does give IT organizations more choice—you can get a Linux box from IBM, HP, or Dell, so you can play the hardware vendors off each other price-wise.”

Evidently IT groups are doing just that. Meta Group projects major server operating system market shifts by 2006, away from Unix/RISC toward Linux on Intel (a choice dubbed “Lintel”). It’s not alone. Research firms Gartner and IDC also have identified Linux as the fastest-growing enterprise operating system in terms of shipments and agree that it will soon surpass Unix.


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