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Windows feeling open source draft

If most Linux conversions come at the expense of Unix, then why has Microsoft's defense of Windows gotten so harsh? Redmond watchers think they know.

If most Linux converts come from enterprises looking to replace Unix servers and mainframes, not Windows servers, then why is Microsoft's defense of Windows over Linux changing in tone -- veering from a debate to a high-pitched argument?

At LinuxWorld this week, Martin Taylor, the Microsoft executive who is now in charge of promoting Windows over Linux, fended off some jibes from the audience during a question-and-answer session.

Taylor often points to industry studies, many of which were paid for by Microsoft, that say Windows offers a better return on investment than Linux. He is also an instrumental part of the company's "get the facts" advertising campaign, which contrasts Windows and Linux.

The noise level from Microsoft does appear to be getting louder, and probably for good reason. While no one expects all customers to do wholesale replacements of Windows, key customers are definitely choosing Linux for the data center over Windows. These are the same customers that, five or seven years ago, Microsoft had counted on to move off of their mainframes and onto Windows.

"Redmond is seeing that the feeling within marquee customers has shifted from the idea that Windows would be in the data center to where Linux is going to be everywhere," said Jonathan Eunice, president of Illuminata Inc., a Nashua, N.H.-based consulting firm. "It's a matter of [Microsoft's] expectations being dashed."

The discussion was once about mainframes downsizing to NT, but now lots of these mainframe customers are deciding on Linux. Indeed, Forrester Research has included in its top trends for 2004 the prediction that Linux will cement its place in the data center. The Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm also anticipated that, by the end of this year, close to 10% of Global 2000 companies will have migrated from Windows servers to Linux.

Microsoft's worst nightmare is a company like Boscov's Inc., which is one of the country's largest family-owned department store chains. Last year, Boscov's said that it would dump its server farm and run everything on a single IBM eServer z900 running Linux. The company's IT professionals decided that this strategy would be cheaper than having 44 servers running Windows.

Boscov's has grown from five to 40 stores and needs more processing power, said Joe Poole, manager of technical support at the Reading, Pa.-based company. The company has a mainframe in its data center, but replacing that mainframe would require a lot of servers, not to mention more electricity, maintenance, licenses, floor space and disaster recovery measures.

Poole said that Boscov's always had some Windows in its server farm, but the company's CIO decreed that the IT staff buy no more servers.

Instead, Poole said, the company chose a single server and runs its legacy applications on SuSE Linux, and on virtual machines. "We are already paying the electricity to run the z900," Poole said. "It doesn't cost any more to put server instances on the same platform."

Linux may also make its way to the desktops at Boscov's. Poole said that his CIO estimates that 60% of the company's PCs could be Linux desktops running OpenOffice. The only Windows PCs that would need to remain are those that run applications written expressly for Windows.

So why is Boscov's boldly moving toward Linux while others are still fearful? "Well, there is a great culture shock when you do this," Poole said. "But if we opened up a new store and populated it with Linux PCs, no one would know the difference."

Illuminata's Eunice said that, while Microsoft has done an excellent job maturing Windows to take on greater tasks during the past few years, Linux has emerged out of the blue and is now well-positioned as a strategic alternative.

"Unix, in the form of Linux, has come roaring back into customer-buying decisions," Eunice said. "Microsoft is right to be highly concerned."

Even the big OEMs, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc. are enthusiastic about Linux, and these vendors have traditionally been strong Windows supporters.

Eunice said that it's not just the operating system that has Microsoft concerned. Customers are also looking at Web servers -- open source's Apache versus Microsoft's IIS, plus other middleware and database software. The Eclipse platform, which is maintained by an open source development tools organization, competes directly with Visual Studio, and is "an incredibly good" product, he said.

During the mid-1990s, Microsoft attacked mainframes and minicomputers by portarying Windows as good enough to handle all computing tasks. Now, the next generation of "good-enough computing" has come around, and Microsoft doesn't like it, Eunice said. "This is proof that [Microsoft] was right, but now someone else has the high ground," he said.


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