Linux heads for the enterprise
BY RASLAN SHARIF & STEVEN PATRICK
The Star IN-TECH
THE presence of a host of familiar corporate names was a telling indicator; the big guns - Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Oracle, AMD, SGI, Sun, Veritas - were all there.
Even Microsoft - a platinum sponsor, would you believe it? - made an appearance at the two-day LinuxWorld Conference and Expo Malaysia 2003 that kicked off in Kuala Lumpur last Tuesday.
The conference sessions were largely dominated by presentations made by multinational vendors. You would have thought that this would have been a turn off for the Open Source Software (OSS) crowd, but it wasn't because the audience packed the sessions.
All these are signs that OSS, led by poster boy the Linux operating system, is set for the big time in Malaysia.
"The corporate senior management mindset is now open (towards OSS) at least," says Malaysian National Computer Confederation (MNCC) council member Dr Nah Soo Hoe, who is also widely regarded as one of the country's OSS gurus.
He adds that if people could "demonstrate enough advantages to switch over to OSS, they would be willing to try."
And they are. More and more local companies are dipping their toes into OSS, which at least shows that they are willing to consider it, according to Linux technology vendors. As Oracle Malaysia managing director V.R. Srivatsan said recently, "the thinking has shifted from 'why Linux?' to why not?"
Besides OSS making technological leaps and bounds that are fuelled by continuing and rapid improvements and enhancements in the kernel, costs considerations have also played a significant role in awakening corporate interest.
"The current economic slowdown means that more are willing to explore OSS usage," says Nah. "They are attracted to the very low - free - licensing fees."
He adds that while Linux remains generally non-sanctioned in a considerable number of IT departments, many companies are already exploring its use in non-critical areas.
Nah cites the example of a local telecommunications company that had wanted to develop an application to send information to its numerous branch offices.
"They found that developing the application the normal way would have been very complex and costly, so they commissioned a group of one or two people to come out with an OSS-based application that could fit on a CD.
"And they did it; the application has been distributed for use to all the offices," he says.
Many visitors to LinuxWorld Malaysia 2003 were also upbeat about OSS prospects in the enterprise segment.
"Linux has been here for a long time, but now we are hearing a lot about the Government pushing Linux," says Magnifix Sdn Bhd system developer Faisal Abdullah. "There's a lot more awareness compared to two years back."
That awareness has seen OSS - mainly Linux - proliferate in areas like web servers, e-mail, and domain name servers, with the use of popular applications like Apache, MySQLand PHP.
Linux has also made headway into the small-to-medium sized industries (SMIs), which uses it in file, print and fax servers, security components like web proxy and firewall, and desktop office applications, according to Nah.
With the availability of high-end software running on Linux, OSS is set to make its presence felt in the heart of the enterprise.
But there, it has to scale a major hurdle in the form of expertise availability, which is generally lower than that for platforms such as Microsoft's Windows.
"Let's face it ... at the moment, the cost of employing a Linux administrator is slightly higher that a Windows administrator," says Malaysian Linux User Group chairman P. C. Low. "That's the law of supply and demand for you."
Magnifix's Faisal argues that "what is needed to bring Linux into the mainstream is to grab experts who are currently operating in the underground."
Nah suggests that both the Government and the private sector set up human resource and skills training centres on OSS to meet the shortage. "It would make corporate OSS adoption easier if skilled personnel were (more) available," he adds.
Still, OSS' potential in the enterprise shouldn't be taken lightly. Even Microsoft doesn't.
The company, together with IBM and Oracle, is a platinum sponsor for LinuxWorld Malaysia 2003, interesting development for many attendees.
"It reflects Microsoft's desire to co-exist with Linux; the company doesn't want to be left out and there is room for both," says Faisal. "There is this thing that Microsoft is supposedly the evil guy and Linux the good guy -- this is not true."
Microsoft's participation in LinuxWorld Malaysia 2003 signifies a shift in strategy as it competes fiercely with OSS.
Microsoft general enterprise strategy manager Christopher H. Short was at hand to speak on "breaking down barriers of coexistence and interoperability."
"Microsoft and Linux need to work together," he tells the conference audience. "We want to be able to coexist."
Later on, Short tells reporters that "it would take some time for the perception to change ... (but) we want to promote interoperability, as this decision was driven by mutual customers (using Linux and Microsoft software).
To underline its commitment to a "peaceful" coexistence, the company is touting its Services for Unix(SFU)3.0 software, which enables Windows to interoperate with Unix-based environments like Linux.
To top of this seemingly surreal development, SFU 3.0 won LinuxWorld 2003's Open Source Product Excellence Award for best system integration software.
Short says customer reaction to SFU has been quite good but he adds it is "an additional service to customers rather than a money-making endeavour."
Microsoft's acknowledgement that there is a need to work with Linux is a clear indication of OSS' rising adoption.
Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) undergraduate Nizammudin Abdullah says that the main development in OSS is the fact that large technology players like Microsoft are now providing support to some degree or another for Linux.
"I don't rule out a point in the future when Linux stands on equal footing with Microsoft," he adds.
Says Hewlett-Packard Sales Sdn Bhd solution architect for managed services Fung Han Ping: "Linux represents the new wave of computing because it is free, but being a new kid on the block, it would naturally receive resistance from the big boys."
As OSS heads for a promising future in the enterprise, that resistance is increasingly looking like a thing of the past.