Linux Growth in Government & Business: Continue?

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In the past few years, adoption of the Linux operating system in both the public and private sectors has grown considerably—a turn of events that has drawn a range of responses. For those in the Microsoft camp, this proliferation has been a thorn in their side, although they seem to be coming to terms with it, as some of the top figures in that faction have started to emphasize heterogeneous IT environments. In fact, Microsoft is now a regular participant at LinuxWorld conferences and has employed the open-source model in some of its own development operations.


Within the open-source community, Linux is viewed as the great wired hope, the plucky underdog that can topple Microsoft’s perceived monopoly. A good friend of mine and member of the open-source set once used Chihuahuas as an analogy to explain the Linux-Microsoft rivalry. Before they became fashion accessories, these tiny dogs were bred in Mexico to hunt mountain lions. The Mexicans would train hundreds of these canines to attack the big cats that harassed their livestock, and they would swarm the offending animals like a school of piranhas. Similarly, some in the open-source group believe that the many independent developers and smaller companies that comprise it will eventually overwhelm Microsoft.


Arguments for Linux
Linux is a long way from overtaking Windows by any measure, but there is no denying it is growing. But why, and will it continue? There aren’t any silver-bullet answers to those questions, though there are some general trends out there that help account for the upsurge in adoption of this open-source OS and perhaps give insight into its future. Here are a few common perceptions on the part of potential users:



  • Linux is low-cost : The most frequent reason cited for Linux adoption is organizations’ belief that it will save them money. Since it’s freeware, Linux costs nothing on the front end. This is particularly advantageous for government institutions, which typically have limited capital.
  • Linux is malleable : Another incentive for Linux is that it can be changed to suit the needs of its users. The house that Torvalds built has been upgraded, expanded and modified so many times that most of the more popular distributions bear almost no resemblance to the original version.
  • Linux is secure : Many studies on security have shown that Linux users are far less likely to be hacked or get a virus. The reasoning goes that because so much attention is paid to the Linux code, fewer breaches occur.


Some of these views, while not incorrect, are somewhat incomplete. For example, Linux does cost something, especially when back-end expenses such as support and employee training are taken into account. Also, many argue that the low number of users (at least in relation to Microsoft) keeps attacks on Linux systems infrequent.


Barriers to Growth
Accuracy notwithstanding, these perceptions have significantly aided Linux adoption in emerging markets like China and India, where research firm Gartner indicates the publicity around the OS has been highest. Still, the adoption rate has not been as high as some might have expected, particularly for a system with such low acquisition costs. Exposure, it seems, is not the problem in these places. Issues like the expenditure and time involved with a migration to Linux have made it difficult to make a case for a conversion. Also, pirated Microsoft products are cheap competition. (One wonders what annoys Redmond more—Linux adoptions or Windows rip-offs.)


On the home front, it appears that the number of new Linux users is dropping dramatically. A recent study conducted by investment banking firm SG Cowen & Co. showed that out of approximately 500 corporate technology buyers in North America, only 7 percent of firms with no Linux servers in place planned to add any during the next 12 months. That represented a drop of more than half from the previous year, which had found that 17 percent of companies without Linux planned to adopt the system.


Of course, that doesn’t mean overall Linux use is declining. Quite the opposite: Cowen analysts predict Linux use will grow appreciably at the companies that already have it. They maintain that Linux’s customer base won’t grow as it did in the past few years because it has already been adopted by former and current UNIX users—its most likely consumers. Most companies that run UNIX have implemented Linux in some capacity because the two systems’ similarities make migration and preparation less problematic.


Although Linux usage might not increase at the breakneck speed of previous years, Linux will continue to grow where there is a need. Generally, this will mean it will expand in heterogeneous IT settings, where it labors alongside UNIX and Windows (and whatever Windows’ successor will be). In this situation, it may never knock Microsoft off its perch, but it will most assuredly give enterprises more feasible options in the OS market. An economist would call this competition. A Daoist might say it’s balance. Either way, it’s a good thing.


–Brian Summerfield,

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