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'Epic struggle' between Linux and Windows a myth

There is a vocal minority of IT professionals who are passionate about their preference of Windows or Linux. Most, however, are decidedly more practical.

Special report:
Can Windows and Linux peacefully co-exist?

First in a series.

Microsoft has spent an enormous amount of energy trying to convince enterprise customers that Windows is a better value proposition than Linux.

But its "Get the Facts" campaign probably generates more excitement among journalists and marketing departments than with the IT administrators it seeks to influence.

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Microsoft created the campaign to move discussion about the two operating system platforms away from "religious" issues and toward tangible items such as cost, function and return on investment.

But the real fact is that for many experienced IT professionals, this seemingly epic battle between Windows and Linux does not really register on a practical level.

No doubt that interest in Linux is growing, but not necessarily as a replacement for Windows. "We are curious about it," said Frank Hood, vice president of operations at Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Inc., in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Though the company doesn't use Linux yet, Hood said he would consider the platform for either an appliance or a specific application. "We may have Linux doing some peripheral security monitoring, but it won't be in the mainstream," he said.

Standardization vs. customization

Experts say the enterprise market generally falls into one of two camps when it comes to choosing an operating system. One type of customer wants standardization and consistency. That's a Windows user.

"This user wants applications up and running as quick as possible," said Tony Iams, a senior analyst at D.H. Brown Associates Inc., a Port Chester, N.Y.-based consulting firm. But this value proposition doesn't just work for Windows.

"It's the same affinity for [IBM's] AS/400 and the mainframe," he said.

Another type of customer wants to choose their kernel, their clustering software, their database and the like. In short, they want to customize and develop something to their exact requirements. "That was the classic Unix profile, and now it's also the classic Linux profile," Iams said.

When you have this kind of cultural divide, it's unlikely that that one will take over the other. "The best thing about [Linux] today is that it's driving Microsoft to be better," said Paul Edwards, a Windows administrator at PHH Arval, a transportation fleet management company based in Sparks, Md.

Perfect storm brings on rise of Linux

Iams traces the surge in Linux acceptance by the mainstream to a few events in recent history. In the late 1990s, Unix ran mainly on RISC systems -- just when Windows NT customers were first starting to experience the scalability and

The best thing about [Linux] today is that it's driving Microsoft to be better.

Paul Edwards, administrator,

PHH Arval

performance limits of the Microsoft platform.

At about that time, Linux was maturing for use in a production environment, and it had the advantage of running on industry-standard hardware. "For the first time, you could have the value and price performance benefits of Intel [Corp.] hardware and not be forced to use Windows," he said.

That development also occurred at a time when the release of Windows 2000 was delayed, as well as when Internet usage in the enterprise was exploding. Add to that a demand for greater reliability, scalability and remote management, and the stage was set for some disgruntled users to move to Linux, Iams said.

When Microsoft shipped Windows 2000 and Windows Server 2003 -- both of which made dramatic improvements in reliability and scalability -- it eliminated many complaints from enterprise customers. The decision that IT managers had to make had changed. "Now, do you want an integrated view? Choose Windows. Do you want choice? Choose Linux," Iams said.

Microsoft now faces a challenge to grow its business, and there are several factors that could go a long way in determining the company's future.

Win over mainframers or woo SMBs

First, Microsoft is reaching for high-end environments with its clustering software. But the company knows it can only go so far in capturing Unix business because Unix administrators have strong feelings about the platform's superiority to Windows. Mainframe customers, however, are more similar to Windows users in that they are in an environment where there is minimal customization, Iams said.

Either Microsoft can try to win over mainframe users, or it can grow its market among small and medium-sized business customers who don't have a lot of time to spend setting up their systems.

The appearance of Novell Inc. as a Linux powerhouse may make some difference. Waltham, Mass.-based Novell has channel partners in place and is trying to make the transition from its NetWare network operating system model to Linux. With the acquisition of SuSE Linux last year, and SuSE's speed to market with a product featuring the latest Linux kernel (version 2.6), Novell has a functional edge over its rivals, Iams said.

Add to that a posse of Novell value-added software, such as eDirectory, support for the JBoss application server and the Zenworks management platform, and Novell has a decent shot at attracting enterprise customers, according to experts like Iams.

And greater pressure is on Microsoft now that two of the most touted functions of Longhorn -- the new file system and integrated search -- won't be in the initial release of this next version of Windows. "From an IT administrator standpoint, this may not be a big deal, but it's essential for Microsoft that they get something out, on the desktop and on the server," Iams said.

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