Governments to Go Ga-Ga for Linux?
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
Munich, Germany. Bergen, Norway. Anytown, USA? Anyborough, England? Quelqueville, France? The first two are not mythical places, but real cities in Europe that have achieved somewhat mythical status in the Linux community because they have decided to put Linux on their desktops and servers, replacing Windows. As Microsoft has so aptly demonstrated in the past decade, the desktop platform is unequivocally linked to the platform in the data center, and those who choose Windows or Linux for one job are apt to choose the same platform for the other. Eventually.
There are two questions that are raised by the choices that Munich and Bergen made. The first is question is: Are other city, state, and federal governments the world over apt to follow, or are these decisions exceptions to the Windows rule on desktops? The other question is whether there will soon be a positive feedback loop in the Linux market, whereby success in the server space engenders success on the desktop, which in turn feeds more widespread adoption of Linux on servers and desktops.
The Linux desktop issue was supposed to be dead, and most of the IT vendor community was convinced that taking a run at the Windows operating system and application market on the desktop was not just futile, but downright stupid. I can still recall Hewlett-Packard chairman and CEO Carly Fiorina gave the keynote address at LinuxWorld in January 2002, and basically admonished the Linux faithful to give up any idea of knocking Microsoft down a peg or two in the desktop space.
Since that time, a lot of things have happened. Because Windows is the dominant desktop platform and is reviled by many in the hacker community (who apparently espouse open source software, but have a terrible way of showing it), countless viruses, worms, and Trojan horses have been hammering on corporate Windows desktops. Microsoft also launched its Software Assurance and Licensing 6.0 pricing models, which raised the cost of Windows desktops at many companies. This, more than anything else that the Linux community is doing, is what is fueling the adoption of Linux and on the desktop.
It hasn't hurt that Sun Microsystems acquired the German software maker behind the Star Office clone of Microsoft's Office suite and then let it go as an open source application suite. In a funny twist of nationalistic fate (if you happen to be German), Sun has married the SuSE desktop Linux environment and Star Office to create the Java Desktop System (JDS), a subscription-based desktop platform that costs $50 per user per year, and even less for governments, particularly those in developing countries where Sun is giving discounts that are keyed to the relative economic development standings created by the United Nations. Sun is gunning for 50 million JDS seats by the end of 2006.
The City of Munich, which has decided to replacing its 14,000 Windows desktops with Linux, is but the tip of the iceberg in Germany, and perhaps across Europe and Asia. In 2003, the German Ministry of the Interior signed a deal with IBM to help city, state, and federal German government agencies try to move to Linux. While European companies and governments are often not as fast at adopting new technologies as their American counterparts, and Asian organizations are often relatively newbies when it comes to any IT at all, Europe was a hot-bed for the Unix revolution in the late 1980s and early 1990s and both Europe and Asia (including China, India, and other areas outside of Japan, which behaves more like the United States than not when it comes to IT technology) are rapidly adopting Linux. In Western Europe, about 15 percent of new desktops ship with Linux. About 25 percent of desktops that ship in India run Linux. This is a serious change in a very short time.
So what is driving Linux on the desktop? Customers believe Linux costs less (whether or not it does depends on how you count the costs) and Linux definitely can give them more control over their platform, particularly if there is an indigenous Linux supplier in the country. These are the kinds of governments that think locally and act locally, and getting homegrown software that is said to be more secure is something they are going to find appealing.
The Linux case in Germany was particularly strong when SuSE was not yet owned by Novell and Star Office, which was created by a German company, had been acquired by Sun and significantly improved and made open source. And the fact that Microsoft has apparently hired away Karl Aigner, the account manager who sold Munich on Linux, away from Novell in late April is not going to change the trajectory of Linux on the desktops in Germany all that much. (Although it seems like a shrewd move just the same.) Even the personal intervention of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer could not change the mind of the Munich politicos and its IT staff.
But the enthusiasm for Linux is not restricted to desktops. Some governments are going to come at Linux from the desktop and work back to the servers, some will start with the servers and may or may not work back to the desktops. Last week, Bergen, which is the second largest city in Norway, made headlines as it announced that it was replacing its HP-UX and Windows servers in a two-phase project with SuSE Linux servers. Bergen has 20 HP-UX servers, which use the PA-RISC processors and which run Oracle databases that are behind the applications that manage the city, are being migrated to HP's Integrity line of Itanium servers running Linux in 64-bit mode. The 100 Windows servers that Bergen was using for infrastructure workloads are going to be ported to about 20 blades in IBM's BladeCenter servers and will run the 32-bit version of SuSE Linux.
This is not just a German phenomenon. Last week, the French government said that it wanted to have a second source for the Windows platform that it currently uses on close to 1 million PCs. Microsoft is being told that it has to compete against Linux and open source applications to win future business. A few months ago, the city of Paris commissioned a study to review what it would take to deploy open source software on its 17,000 desktops and 400 servers.
Jim Stallings, who is the general manager of IBM's Linux business and who has just spent a ridiculous 45 days on a world tour talking to governments and companies around the world about their IT issues and how Linux might address them, thinks that Munich and Bergen are just the first dominos to fall. He says that Big Blue expects the Linux desktop market to grow at a 44 percent compound annual growth over the next several years. "People have seen the TCO benefits of Linux on the server, and now they want it on the desktop," he says. And the initial cost of operating systems and applications is not the big issue for customers, according to Stallings. "People are highly frustrated, and more about reliability and security." Because of the costs of dealing with viruses and other security threats that Windows is more prone to simply because it is the most established desktop platform in the world (Linux may or may not be more secure once it gets a big market share), the cost of administering a PC can be six times as high as the initial sticker price of the box. Moving to Linux means Windows viruses can't run. It is that simple. Moreover, he says that about 65 percent of the total IT operational costs are dedicated to the desktops. "You are going to see many more governments worldwide make the same choice that Munich did," he declares. While IBM cannot cut the costs by a factor of six, its centralized PC management technologies can allow it to manage desktops centrally without having to rip and replace everything, cutting as much as 30 percent of the cost of administration. Add even a few points of savings from a jump to Linux and a lot less virus hassles, and most organizations are willing to contemplate letting go of Windows and Office.
Stallings says that a year ago, IT people that he visited around the world in governments and companies were talking about Linux. And this year, each and every one of them has an organized Linux strategy. It is going to be an interesting time on the desktop, no matter what the skeptics a few years ago said. And Microsoft, sitting on its hoard of more than $50 billion in cash, is not going to sit quietly by while Novell, Red Hat, and IBM go after the Windows desktop. This is going to be very interesting, indeed.
Related story: "Microsoft Needs to Address Loss of Government Desktops to Linux", from The Windows Observer, our sister publication.