Do you want the cart of your corporate IT network to be pulled by an ox or a team of highly-bred horses? The ox has huge strength, but its progress is ponderous. The horses, though, show finesse and agility when it comes to negotiating the twists and bumps put in the path of IT by modern business.
This analogy is favoured by the advocates of Linux, the maverick open-source operating system that emerged from the free-spirited world of the late 1990s e-boom, when comparing its technology with that of its arch rival, the all-conquering Microsoft Windows family.
No prizes for guessing which is the ox in this rendering of the IT landscape. Linux - the brainchild of Scandinavian uber-geek Linus Torvalds and his international cohort of unpaid programming collaborators - has recently shed its puritan, 'hardcore techies only' image and is gathering pace in the corporate market. Virtues such as the absence of pricy licence fees and free access to the source code (allowing a user's own programmers to customise Linux - anathema to the proprietary software vendors) appeal to those looking for a cost-effective and flexible alternative to the usual IT suspects.
The parable preferred by Microsoft, on the other hand - and indeed by other vendors of proprietary operating systems - is that of the house built on sandy ground and one built on rock. Today, an IT network is not merely the soft furnishings of a business; it is the very walls and windows too (no pun intended). Trying to make that all stand up on Linux, say its rivals, is like building on sand - fine when the sun is shining, but once commercial or technological storms set in, leaves you vulnerable to a crash.
What both sides recognise, however, is that Linux is no longer the geeky new kid on the block: it has the support of such IT giants as IBM, HP and Sun Microsystems. Like the internet, which grew from the minds of online idealists to become a robust business channel, Linux packs serious commercial punch. Some say it is even stoking a software revolution that offers the first realistic chance in years to take a big bite out of Microsoft's market dominance.
So where is Linux now? The use it is put to by SJ Treloar & Associates, an Oxford-based firm of chartered building surveyors, is in many ways typical. The company faced a growing problem with virus and spam attacks on its network of 25 PCs. Explains senior partner Stephen Treloar: 'The firm was having issues - printer spooling errors, network protocol and significant security breaches leading to virus damage. At one point, we effectively lost the office for two or three days.'
The company opted for Linux, since this promised to cure its headache with a single pill in the shape of the Net-inter-Net server product from KYZO. 'We don't suffer from downtime any more, we have significantly reduced the number of virus attacks of the nature that we had become used to when running Windows, and we have reduced costs by not having to purchase Microsoft licences,' says Treloar.
'The open-source model very much suits us as a small business and makes far more economic sense than going down the Microsoft route - there's no need to purchase licences with the KYZO server.'
Put more generally, the business case for open-source is based on factors like these. 'First, the savings in licence fees reduce IT costs,' says Dr Sean Baker, chief corporate scientist and co-founder of systems integration company Iona Technologies.
'Second, you are not dependent on a single company to fix bugs, port to new versions, and to innovate. Third, in some cases, the efficiency of an IT department can be improved because you have access to the source code and can use this to determine how to make best use of a product.'
For these reasons, many European firms have indeed implemented open-source solutions. Says Richard Peynot, senior analyst at Forrester Research: 'Forty-three per cent of the companies we surveyed are piloting or considering open-source, 31% claim a complete rollout and 58% plan to extend their spending on open-source products.' Worldwide, $1 billion was spent on Linux servers in the third quarter of 2004, according to researcher IDC.
There is a downside, though. Open-source adoption is still hindered by the fear factor: a lack of internal understanding and vendor consensus. In particular, it may be unclear to IT middle management, let alone business executives, what opting for open-source technologies actually means and what the consequences may be.
'Users need to overcome their fears and manage risk though a clear open-source strategy, including careful vendor selection,' says Peynot. 'They should select open-source components and their deployment areas, make a business case for each open-source project, avoid fragile startups, and add specific selection criteria for open-source.'
In other words, if you make bad choices, then the move to Linux can go wrong. Engineering company Surface Technik deployed a Linux-based system initially with a view to using it for internet research and e-mail, and it performed well for that purpose. However, as demand among staff for additional online applications grew - such as shared calendars and contact access - the company began to find Linux a hindrance. 'Even though the Linux platform appeared the cheaper option, we couldn't do everything we wanted to from a computing perspective,' says managing director Peter Morris.
Just months later, the company switched back to Microsoft. 'The Linux server we had was expensive and we changed to a better deal - it was a question of simple economics.'
Yet many such limitations will disappear as Linux becomes more established.
And anyway, say advocates, Linux is not just about now but the future.
Implicit in the open-source model is a switch from thinking of an IT purchase as a question of 'which product' to thinking of it as 'which service'.
In other words, going with Microsoft is to opt for a product-focused IT environment; you get all the bells and whistles, regardless of whether you need them. But open-source implies a move to service-focused IT, in which applications are deployed as and when they are required.
'This gives you control over what you do,' explains Mark Taylor, executive director of the Open Source Consortium. 'Proprietary software is driven for you. You have to go with whatever features and upgrade paths the vendors offer. Open-source is crafted precisely according to what you want. It gives you complete control over hardware, functionality and future upgrades.'
Whence the possibility of revolution. 'One of the primary reasons for the ripples that open-source is causing is that it does not follow the standard rules of engagement,' observes Dominic Monkhouse, managing director of Rackspace Europe, an internet technology specialist. The benefit is that when the new IT mindset takes hold, open-source brings thousands of people into the creative process.
'Corporate IT shops that access the open-source network can tap into the innovation potential of people all over the world,' elaborates Cyndi Mitchell, director of operations at application developer ThoughtWorks.
So much for the theory. What of the practice? Will 2005 be a good year for Linux, and, more to the point, might it be the year to invest in the new platform? A number of IT industry observers judged 2004 to have been a breakthrough, reckoning that last year, open-source gained critical mass in corporate networks. They noted that it now runs crucial business applications - as opposed to peripherals such as web servers and ad hoc IT projects - in the back offices of companies from DaimlerChrysler to Deutsche Bahn.
This growth is largely a result of the fact that Linux is now more visible to corporate users by virtue of new distribution networks from companies such as Novell and Red Hat. These new operators sniff money and the chance to take market share from the mighty Microsoft by implementing and supporting Linux applications and network services, rather than selling products and licences.
Says Adam Jollans, IBM's worldwide Linux software marketing strategy manager: 'We see it continuing to move from the edge of the corporate network into mainstream business-critical applications in 2005. What is happening is that customers are growing in confidence. They have used it for smaller tasks and are saying: we'd like to extend those benefits elsewhere.'
A quick roundup of vendor activity since the start of the year confirms his point. For example, in February, Novell unveiled a migration path to Linux for corporate users of its Netware operating system: this is a toe-in-the-water offer, allowing companies to try out Linux with relative ease.
In the same month, IBM introduced a cut-price Linux server aimed at SMEs - a direct challenge to Microsoft's Small Business Server. In fact, if you use so-called thin clients, Linux may be already running on your network. It is embedded in products from Wyse Technology, for example.
Talking of the desktop, Linux will become better supported and more accessible here this year, too, and the Palm platform for PDAs and smartphones will soon be available in Linux flavours. The appeal of Linux for hand-held device manufacturers is the same as that for company network managers: Linux is an enterprise-class operating system that does not require new licences to be bought for every device sold. Moreover, it can be tailored precisely to suit the device concerned - in theory, resulting in greater ease of use - a tampering with the software that is often forbidden in proprietary alternatives.
Not that 2005 will be all plain sailing. For one thing, Microsoft - never slow to recognise a new commercial threat - has turned up the heat. The debate about the respective cost, security and performance of the alternatives looks more and more like a ping-pong match; as one report comes out, it is immediately rebutted by another. Microsoft has even launched a getthefacts.com website.
And within the open-source community itself, the waters can get choppy, notably as a result of litigation - perhaps an inevitable outcome of the growing commercialisation of open-source products. One Linux proponent, SCO, is involved in various lawsuits that look likely to damage it severely.
Advises the website of Forrester Research: 'We strongly counsel current SCO users to investigate alternatives.'
On the other hand, legal impediments to the development of Linux applications should be eased. Organisations such as the Software Freedom Law Centre now offer free advice to worried developers, which is good news for end-users looking for better applications.
Of course, Linux is highly unlikely to kill Microsoft, or even come close to mortally wounding it: Windows PCs are still the desktop of choice for most organisations (sales rose again last year), and Microsoft continues to grow in the back office. But Linux has secured a foothold in the market and earned its place in the IT manager's toolbox as a genuine alternative.
A case of horses for courses, perhaps.
LINUX vs MICROSOFT
WHAT IS IT? Like Microsoft Windows and Unix, Linux is an operating system, the fundamental program that enables a computer to run. The first version of Linux was written by Linus Torvalds in 1991, and it is still being improved by thousands of corporate-supported and volunteer programmers all over the world.
WHY IS IT DIFFERENT? No-one owns the rights to Linux so it's free - free as in 'free speech' not 'free beer' (as linux.com puts it). It's open-source - that is to say, it comes with its source code so that changes can be made in-house and anyone can redistribute it. By contrast, it is not OK to make copies of Windows and it is impossible to tweak the source code.
WHAT'S THE CATCH? The diversity of Linux makes it hard for novices to decide which version will suit their needs best. This is where Linux gets commercial: vendors offer advice, support and implementation, for which customers pay.
WHICH IS BETTER? Linux advocates say their baby has a lower Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). You don't have to pay for a new licence every time you deploy a new copy of the software - or for the bureaucracy to administer the licences. But Microsoft retorts that TCO includes not just start-up costs but maintenance, support and upgrade costs, too.
'But what about security?' cries the Linux camp. Everyone, it says, has had a Windows virus. 'Security is our number one priority,' counters Microsoft. No-one, it says, is safe from hackers. And with Seattle's finest, you have the weight of one of the world's largest research budgets bearing down on the problem.
WHO USES LINUX?
- Linux is number two in the server market and runs some of the world's most popular websites, including eBay, Google and the Wimbledon Tennis Championships site.
- Italian car-maker Fiat is rolling out a new 17-country-wide CRM system based on Linux this year.
- Linux is the operating system of choice for many European local governments, including the cities of Bergen, Munich and Vienna.
- The supercomputer at the heart of Nasa's Columbia space exploration simulator runs on Linux.
WHERE CAN YOU GET IT?
From a distributor. Distributors charge an annual subscription for packaging Linux with user manuals, updates and support packages. You pay for the extras rather than the software itself. Best-known Linux distributors include:
- RedHat www.europe.redhat.com
- Novell www.novell.com/linux/suse and www.novell.com/linux/suse
- Debian www.debian.org.