Linux in the Middle East

Linux in the Middle East: is it ready for prime time or doomed to remain a geek toy?

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By  Jon Tullett Published  March 15, 2001

Introduction|~||~||~|Around the world, the Linux revolution is gaining momentum. Companies are moving servers to the Unix-like OS, trusting e-commerce and mission-critical application to the platform, while support from software and hardware vendors is growing exponentially.

Despite that, Linux has yet to really gain a foothold in the Middle East. In many ways, the Linux community here is remarkably similar to the way it was elsewhere in the world several years ago. Although that may seem disheartening to fans of the open source OS, it does suggest that similarly stellar growth lies ahead in the future.

In the meanwhile, there are a number of hurdles to be overcome. Chief among them is market perception; Linux just isn't on the radar for most IT managers, at least, not in any significant sense. In the US and Europe, it was only when Linux began to get significant amounts of mainstream publicity in the press that the non-technical support began to grow. Vendors and independent advocates can only push the message so far, to get further it is necessary to capture the eye of the businessman, and ultimately, that means being able to make a sound business case.

"In the Middle East, we've been promoting our Linux capabilities on a 'grass-roots' level directly with customers for about two years," says Jean-Philippe Degrendele, General Manager of SGI Middle East & North Africa. "The biggest challenge that SGI has seen in regional Linux adoption is just a lack of awareness about the benefits of the Linux environment. We have made major investments in educating the market and widening the awareness about Linux."

Degrendele believes that the market will responds quickly to the education programmes organisations like SGI have been conducting. "We believe that within the next four years, almost half of our customers will choose the Linux platform," he says.

Tim Martin, MD of Mindware (appointed the first RedHat distributor in the Middle East last May), is less convinced. "This is a very conservative market, with strong loyalty to existing brands." Martin says RedHat, although good to have in the Mindware stable, is very much a long-term potential product than one promising anything to the channel soon.

Even once awareness in the market builds, as it doubtless will, the next hurdle will be professional support services. That includes training, integrators with Linux portfolios, and technical support.

Much of that is already being addressed; the market has been quietly gearing up to support Linux in various ways. SGI, like other vendors promoting Linux locally, has been investing heavily in training, says Degrendele. "We've seen that Linux training in the Middle East is taking a two-fold approach - IT staff are learning independently about Linux and engaging in hands-on testing, while vendors are also making forays into Linux training to test the market's interest.

"Any training interest on new technologies typically follows the implementation curve. As far as Linux is concerned, the Middle East region has yet to experience the installation boom, which will no doubt appear in the next 12 months. As a result, the current demand for Linux training is quite low from the professional world. The higher education institutions are much more aware of the coming of age of Linux, and SGI is working with a number of them to develop and offer a curriculum in this area."

Mindware's Martin concurs. "There are a number of accredited training institutions offering Linux training," he says.

||**||Integration is key|~||~||~|

Integration services may be slower to evolve. Of several thousand resellers in the region, Martin says only a small percent are taking Linux seriously, but are reluctant to invest in their offerings until a clear market demand is evident. "The big integration houses are all aware of Linux," he says.

"But you have to understand that they are businessmen; if they don't see profit, they won't push it." So the good news is that you can probably find a partner to help you build Linux solutions, but the bad news is that they may not have invested much in the facilities and skills to fully support early adopters in the market.

"The availability and quality of Linux integration and support are certainly two key areas that will influence the adoption of Linux in the Middle East," says Degrendele. "There are lots of companies out there looking into Linux and putting forward serious attempts to become key players, and sole providers of Linux knowledge."

The initial groundswell of support will doubtless be in niche markets. Education is a common field in which Linux gains support, and it is no surprise that there are active user groups in areas such as the Jordanian developer community. Internet services, too, needing open platforms with diverse support, will be a key area.

Once those reference sites start to appear, and clear vindication conceded by the market, the rate of deployment is likely to accelerate. "Due to its rather limited number of software development companies, the Middle East is not a forerunner when it comes to Linux support," says Degrendele.

"We believe that in the next 12-18 months, when it will become clear what advantages Linux has to offer, and successful project implementations happen, attention and support for Linux in this region will increase exponentially." As such, this is one vendor investing in their support infrastructure. "We at SGI- MENA are in the process of adopting SGI's Global service program. SGI Global Services is a one-stop shop for comprehensive services and support around Linux-based systems and solutions."

Degrendele says he is "seeing the greatest Linux adoption by technical and creative professionals in the Internet, sciences, and education industries. As other industries hear more about regional Linux 'success stories,' we anticipate more widespread adoption, even in the Middle East's telecommunications, media, oil and gas sectors.

"So far we have had great success in penetrating the ISP and ASP markets in the MENA region. The SGI bundled Linux Internet/messenger servers are being deployed in countries like Jordan, Egypt, and Yemen. These servers are not only used as web servers, but also as media servers, for broadband implementations. They are cost- effective scalable and field-proven."

||**||No desktop progress|~||~||~|

At the desktop level, even internationally Linux is making almost no progress against the incumbent variants of Windows, and with good reason. An historic lack of hardware support, ease-of-use issues and a fundamental lack of essential software are the most regularly named. Those have been addressed to varying degrees, but the penetration still remains negligible. The reason for that is simple; users don't want sudden changes, and managers don't want the drop in productivity that will be incurred. Even if Linux were overnight to receive identical support from hardware vendors and ISVs, it would take years to dislodge Microsoft. In the Middle East, with a generally conservative user-base and a lack of even grass-roots support for Linux, it is unlikely to make a play for the desktop in the next several years.

Instead, its role will grow in the back office, finding a place of departmental servers, web servers, application servers and stand-alone boxes. In time, as vendors such as IBM, SGI, Dell and Compaq push Linux as a factory-installed alternative, it will find its way into high-end sites and clustered environments. The benefits are clearly documented, and the ISV support growing.

A simple roadmap for IT departments wanting to familiarise themselves with both the environment and to test the market's ability to support them can easily start small with black-box installations like file- or mail-servers, gaining skills and preparing for wider deployment when the time is right. A sudden transition is clearly absurd, as is the assumption that companies must choose to support either Linux or another OS throughout the organisation.

Identifying the best platform and tools for each task is a natural part of IS operations. Within that scope, there is a role (and a constantly changing one!) for Microsoft, Unix, Linux, thin clients, embedded OSes in mobile devices and several more. Will every company need all those? No. But to enforce strict adherence to one platform is to forcibly deny IT administrators access to best-of-breed solutions. "People want alternatives," says Martin. "Microsoft has great products, but people want to be able to choose for themselves."

||**||Still far to go|~||~||~|

All is not roses, however. Although Linux has widespread emotional support from vendors and users, that does not imply that it is guaranteed to succeed, or risk-free. The possibilities of a kernel fork (as happened to Unix originally), or reluctance from a vendor to support a critical application, are among the possibilities that may severely hamper a Linux deployment within even a smallish company. "If it isn't broken, don't fix it," Martin says. "There are a lot of questions about Linux; it is indeed vulnerable to outside factors."

In the interim, the "garage user" model is not at all a bad thing. Many highly competent Linux experts, administrators and programmers taught themselves the hard way, with no support besides the vast accumulated knowledge available on the Internet; on websites, mailing lists and Usenet forums. RedHat, Martin points out, offers strong 24x7 support over the Internet, and fully expects that to suffice for most users. "We don't see a lack of local support as a big issue."

Do you want to wait a year or so, and see if the market is ready to fully support your Linux projects, or are you willing to take the plunge and lead the charge? That question is not at all trivial; deployment of Linux servers can yield very significant advantages in cost and flexibility. Early adopters do face possible risks, but also stand to gain a definite lead on latecomers. Ultimately, the matter revolves around what is best for your business, and the IT services contributing to its support. With sites across the ME adopting Linux in testbeds all the time, the region is unlikely to take long catching up with countries having a head start.

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