Linux's new popularity noteworthy, but unlikely to smudge Windows

What does the recent outbreak of love for Linux mean to Microsoft? Not a whole lot in the short term, but penguin plans from Sun and IBM could throw a few kinks in Microsoft's plan for the software server market .

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The Linux operating system could make some impressive inroads, thanks to recent commitments from Sun and IBM. But some experts and IT administrators said they don't expect these ringing endorsements to cut into Microsoft's installed base in the short term.

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  • Sun recently showed a lineup of servers -- based on Intel Corp.'s microprocessors -- that gives customers a choice of Linux or Solaris. Sun also has a strategy for delivering Linux on the desktop with its StarOffice package.

    IBM is offering Linux on a range of its hardware, from mainframes to Intel servers. IBM has also said that the Open Source Development Network Inc. will port SourceForge.net, an open-source development site, to run exclusively on Big Blue's DB2 database software and WebSphere Internet infrastructure software.

    Even though inquiring IT managers are asking plenty of questions about Linux, many administrators at large Windows shops expect to remain committed to Microsoft. However, they can see Linux picking up some steam over time as a mainstream platform.

    Dana Daugherty, a senior system engineer at PRA International, a McLean, Va.-based drug developer, said that any time a vendor uses Linux where there is widespread distribution, it's good for the platform.

    "There is simply more coverage on more systems," he said. But Daugherty warned that the platform can be successful only if vendors control the Linux code. "It's open-source code, and if it gets too far and there are too many different versions, that will destroy the operating system," he said.

    For other customers, Linux endorsements from the major platform vendors are welcome, but they would like to resolve lingering issues about how those vendors will support the open-source software.

    Curtis Muldrew, director of technology infrastructure at Smith & Nephew Inc., an Andover, Mass.-based medical equipment manufacturer, said it's no surprise that the major players are embracing Linux. But he's not sure whether a hardware vendor will be ready to jump in to fix a problem if that problem occurs on a server running Linux.

    "I need to hear them say 'we will provide the same level of effort in supporting Linux as we do any other operating system,'" Muldrew said. "If I see that, I'm ready to go."

    Rob Helm, research director at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash.-based consulting firm, said that although Sun's and IBM's efforts won't impact Microsoft in the short term, they do narrow some avenues that Microsoft had hoped to expand.

    Microsoft's game plan for getting off the desktop PC treadmill and onto the software server stairmaster has them sneaking in from the low end -- through small business -- and taking advantage of the relatively cheap Intel hardware.

    But the announcements from Microsoft's rivals have thrown a wrench in that plan. Sun and IBM are using Linux to sneak into the server market from the bottom.

    "For a while it looked like [Microsoft] would escape competition, but now it seems like that won't happen," Helm said.

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