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Microsoft's gentler approach to Linux

After years of ridiculing Linux and open source technologies, Microsoft Corp. is now changing its approach. Responding to Microsoft users' demand for less hype, Microsoft is promising to take a more rational approach to comparing Windows to Linux and open source software.

After years of shunning or ridiculing Linux and open source technologies, Microsoft Corp. is now changing its approach when it comes to convincing customers that Windows has a better value.

At Fusion 2002 in Los Angeles recently, Peter Houston, Microsoft's Windows Division director of business strategy, said Microsoft will focus less on arguing with the Linux community and more on presenting real information to IT executives.

The change in style is a direct response from Microsoft sales teams and resellers who have been requesting collateral information for customers who want to know the value proposition of Windows versus Linux and open source services. Until now, Microsoft's response was either to ignore Linux entirely or to respond emotionally, Houston said.

The material has been long promised. In December of 2001, a memo leaked from Microsoft's Brian Valentine, senior vice president of the Windows division, to the company's sales, marketing and service groups. Among other things, Valentine outlined plans for Microsoft to begin a campaign that debunks myths surrounding Linux.

Whether or not Microsoft can switch from its typical emotional stance to a more pragmatic voice of reason remains to be seen. Since Microsoft's top executives have historically dealt with Linux and open source by likening it to a disease or to the gobbling video game PacMan, any response will probably appear hysterical, said Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of system software research at International Data Corp., a Framingham, Mass., consulting and market research firm.

"Microsoft is saying things that could be of interest to people, but many will dismiss it because Microsoft is saying it," Kusnetzky said.

Later this month, Microsoft will publish a study it has commissioned that compares four workloads on both Linux and on Windows. The workloads, Web server, file serving, remote access and security (firewalls) compare total cost of ownership between the two platforms.

Microsoft's study will report that from a pure cost perspective, Web servers are the only workload where Linux is a better value than Windows. In the three other workloads, Windows comes out on top largely because of its integrated services.

Some resellers who sell a variety of platforms to enterprise shops agree that Windows actually costs less in more circumstances. One channel partner at Fusion, Mojmir Grlj, technical director at PCX Computers, a channel partner from Ljublijna, Slovenia, has compared the two. "In the end [Linux] is almost as expensive, plus not everyone can install it," Grlj said. "It's not just about the price of the operating system."

IDC studies show that most of the cost relating to ownership and usage -- 50 to 70 percent -- involve human resources with hardware and software making up the rest. Open source management tools are not as mature as Windows tools, according to IDC. There are fewer Linux experts, and it stands to reason that because of demand that they might be more expensive.

For the average user, a Linux project can be more costly than something that is integrated, Kusnetzky said. "The trade off is that open source projects are flexible and can be tuned up and set up just for an environment. No excess software needs to be installed."

Scott Lundstrom, chief technology officer at AMR Research, a Boston consulting firm, said most senior IT managers understand that the fear, uncertainty and doubt Microsoft produces about Linux only works if you are not comfortable with Linux.

Lundstrom said the challenge for Microsoft will be fighting off the commoditization of the market. "Running a server has gotten simple and running a network has gotten cheaper," Lundstrom said. "It was great for Microsoft as long as volumes were increasing. Now the market is flattening out. It's hard to convince people to change a server that runs files, just as it has for five years."


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