Could IT Mood Swings Boost Enterprise Desktop Linux?

Tougher licensing and costly upgrades could trigger IT departments to wrestle for more desktop control and consider moving to Linux, panelists at the Desktop Linux Summit say. Compatibility, however, remains an issue.

SAN DIEGO—Linux on end users desktops remains largely elusive for enterprises, but the open-source operating system could become more attractive as the demands of IT departments shift, said panelists and attendees at the Desktop Linux Summit 2004 here.

Microsoft Corp., the maker of the dominant Windows operating system, and other proprietary software vendors themselves could cause the spark for broader desktop Linux adoption by forcing IT departments into tougher licensing stances or costly upgrade cycles, said Linux backers and IT consultants at the conference on Friday.

Already, among those enterprise considering desktop Linux, the desire to take more control away from vendors seems to plays more of a role than potential cost savings, said Nat Friedman, a co-founder of Ximian Inc. and now Novell Inc.s vice president of product development. Take Microsoft Exchange, the popular e-mail server in corporations, he said. To add directory services on top of it, enterprises must deploy Microsoft Active Directory because of the vendors control.

"Control is one issue coming up more and more," Friedman said. "People want strategic independence from Microsoft."

But to IT consultant Robert Lewis the central consideration for enterprise is less about control and more about risk. Some vendors overly onerous licensing terms, which in some cases even prevent users from publishing results of benchmarks and tests, could lead enterprises to more closely consider Linux, said Lewis, president of IT Catalysts Inc., in Eden Prairie, Minn..

"A lot of CIOs are feeling that the current set of licensing terms put them at risk," he said. "Anything that mitigates that risk is worth looking at."

Windows upgrade cycles and maintenance costs also are likely to play a factor. Louis Nuages, founder and CEO of Paris-based consulting company Microcost, described during a conference session how one of his enterprise clients refused to renew its Microsoft Software Assurance contract for $3.5 million. The company opted instead to keep its current mix of Windows XP and Windows 2000 and consider its OS strategy for the next Windows release code-named "Longhorn."

While the company has not decided on Linux, its decision demonstrates the potential openings for desktop Linux, Nuages said.

There have been smatterings of enterprises moving to desktop Linux, particularly among IT vendors such as Novell, Sun Microsystems Inc. and IBM. But whats still needed to show Linuxs desktop potential is a broad non-vendor enterprise deployment of it, Friedman said. He expects such a case study yet in 2004.

"In many way, 2004 marks the first year of substantial commercial support behind desktop Linux," Friedman said. "2004 is the first year vendors are seriously getting interested in filing in the rest of the offering."

Yet one major stumbling block with enterprises is compatibility of Microsoft file formats with desktop Linux offerings, Lewis said. While strides have been made, even a small percentage of incompatible files causes major problems for larger enterprises.

"Everything lives or dies with the ability to exchange documents with co-workers internally or with your business partners," Lewis said. "Right now OpenOffice and StarOffice are maybe 93-percent compatible."

While the opportunity for enterprise desktop Linux remains open, Friedman said that the biggest market for desktop Linux is likely to be for new deployments rather than any large-scale replacement of desktops in enterprises.

"Ninety percent of world is not using a desktop computer, and thats where the majority of growth is going to be for desktop Linux," Friedman said.

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