Conference speaker offers Linux reality check

Here was a speaker at a Linux enterprise conference telling the audience that Linux isn't the best choice for every IT need.

Linux and other open source software products in many cases may not offer the highest-quality choice available to enterprises, and proprietary software isn't evil, said Jonathan Eunice, president and principal analyst at Illuminata Inc., an IT research and consultancy group based in Nashua, New Hampshire.

But enterprises looking to tweak the code of the software they run and avoid "entanglement costs" associated with vendors who may not listen to their needs may want to consider deploying some open source software, he added, speaking at the Enterprise Linux Forum in Washington, D.C., Thursday.

Eunice urged the attendees at the conference -- mostly IT managers interested in open source software -- to make decisions about using Linux and other open source software based on what's best for their businesses, not on the near-religious arguments that have dominated the open source versus proprietary debate. But he also countered critiques by companies such as Microsoft Corp., saying he finds no basis for the claims that open source stifles innovation.

Successful open source users realize they are not "entering into a communist plot," said Eunice, speaking to an audience of about 50.

"There is no need to go and learn a secret handshake or learn a hymn book to adopt Linux and open source," he said. "There is no vow of obedience and fidelity. You can mix and match, and no one should be angry at you for doing so. It does not require joining a commune; it does not require drinking the Kool-Aid."

Despite claims from some in the open source community, open source development isn't a magic way to create software, Eunice added. "It's not some miracle in software construction that is going to accelerate software development by a factor of 100," he said. "In the early days of open source, many claims were made that bugs would be fixed instantly or new functionality would be added at miraculous speeds. I don't think it's happening."

Linux also isn't a "miraculous cure" for security problems that have plagued Windows, Eunice added. Linux can help enterprises avoid viruses and worms targeting Microsoft products, but open source software projects do issue bug fixes of their own.

While Linux may not be appropriate for every enterprise IT need -- Eunice gave the example of desktops and very large databases as places where many enterprises may want to choose other options when pressed by the audience -- he listed several places where Linux and other open source software will do the job for enterprises. Among them: network servers and gateways, dynamic data centers, computer clusters and grids.

While Linux doesn't "scale up" well to large computers running multiple processors, that debate is becoming less and less important as "scale-out" approaches, such as clusters and grids, take over many large-scale computing needs, he said.

An audience member argued that open source software on the desktop is valuable for people who want to control the computer code and make applications run the way they want, and Eunice agreed. But he questioned whether Linux was ready yet for most home or business desktops.

"I do not believe that Linux and the (open source) ecosystem has produced a complete desktop I would feel comfortable putting my mother or my business office in front of," Eunice said. "I think on the consumer side, there should never be a time for concerns about device drivers or concerns about kernels. My mother will not permit me to have that discussion with her."

Some enterprises with limited desktop needs may be able to run Linux, he said, but most will be more comfortable with a mix of open source and proprietary software. Eunice showed the audience the software running on his laptop: a PowerPoint presentation running on Windows XP, with open source software including the Mozilla Web browser and the jEdit text editor also there.

Open source software isn't always the best or most polished software available, Eunice added, but Linux is a standard that thousands of developers are rallying around. Many enterprises don't want the absolute most polished software package, they often want other advantages open source can give them, he said.

"I can take the absolute best of the open source community, and I can show you something (proprietary) that's technically better in every single case, and you know, sometimes it doesn't really matter," Eunice said. "Sometimes, it's the fact that there's a community, sometimes it's the fact that it's free."

Eunice's presentation listed dozens of enterprise applications available for Linux and vendors offering support for Linux, and dozens of enterprise and government users, including Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. and Ameritrade Holding Corp.

"I don't know of too many major financial organizations that don't have Linux pretty deeply in their infrastructure today," he said. "We're getting to the point where you might as well look at the people who aren't using it. It's becoming a common and accepted part of technology."

But Eunice, who once called Linux a "toy" that would never catch on, encouraged the audience to make their own decisions about using open source software, based on their enterprises' needs. "Open source is a choice you have to make," he said. "But it's not a choice you have to make in any sort of religious or divisive way."

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