Swapping systems

Long-time operating system leader Unix appears to be losing steam, with Windows and Linux growing in popularity. Daniel Stanton asks what this means for the Middle East.

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By  Daniel Stanton Published  April 2, 2006

|~|Djerboa,-Karim-200.jpg|~|Djerboa: Linux has benefits that apply to enterprises and SMBs alike.|~|News that there is a new leader in the operating systems market could be a sign that IT decision makers are starting to re-evaluate the foundations their businesses run on.

Market research firm IDC reported in February that Windows servers accounted for US$17.7b in revenues last year, compared to $17.5b for Unix-based servers. Linux, the open source offshoot of Unix, gained ground with growth of more than 20%, bringing its revenue to $5.7b of server sales. It is the first time in 10 years that Unix has not been number one.

Akshay Lamba, senior consultant at KPMG in Dubai, believes that the time could be right for open source operating systems to make their mark in the Middle East. "Until now, frankly speaking, I didn't see any distribution that was reasonably stable and easy for an end user to use," Lamba says.

Lamba also considers there to be technical advantages of an open source OS. "I would say the default installation of a Linux server compared to a default installation of a Windows server would be more secure," he says.

Despite the enthusiasm for Linux among much of the IT community, he believes that the decision to implement a change of OS should be made purely for business reasons.

"An SMB would probably have drivers such as cost or expertise of implementation," Lamba says. "An enterprise has drivers such as security, scalability, stability. So the drivers are very different, but the end result seems to be the same, which is migrating towards Linux.

"The Middle East as a region is getting highly competitive in nature. Different markets are opening up and they’re becoming extremely competitive, especially the SMB sector. As you get highly competitive you need to build in competitive differentiation. That's where business leaders are going to look at open source, where they can build that advantage into their system."

Dr GSC Prabhakar James is the CEO of GoldenSun Internet Consulting and Research and coordinates the Middle East Linux user group, which now has 510 members. He also provides consulting to universities which offer online educational programmes using open source technologies.

"On the whole, there is a very marked improvement in the awareness and technical expertise in Linux," he says. "I have seen some of my students who have implemented Linux-based clusters in production environments in large government and telecommunications organisations."

Karim Djerboa, is the business development manager of Opennet MEA, the master distributor for Red Hat Linux products in the Middle East. He is convinced that Linux has benefits that apply to enterprises and SMBs alike.

||**|||~|Jamie-Partington-200.jpg|~|Partington: Suse Linux is enabling complex applications to achieve record performance.|~|"Open source technology is always more affordable than proprietary software," Djerboa says. "When you buy an operating system you do not have to be tied to a specific kind of hardware. This will also impact the total cost of ownership.

"By so many people having access to the source code it won't become shallow, and you have so many people that can support you it has to be a higher quality than a monopoly of support by a monopoly proprietary software."

He thinks that many people are being held back because they are used to their systems and do not want to make the effort to change.

"People have been used to branded proprietary software vendors who have, for so many years, hammered us with their software to a point where people accept mediocrity," he says. "Why in the world would you accept the fact that you can have a virus on your server?"

In March, Novell launched Suse Linux Enterprise 10, the first OS to deliver fully supported Linux features such as virtualisation, application-level security and improved desktop usability.

"There are a number of reasons why Linux is booming out here," says Gerard McDonnell, director of Novell Middle East. "One of the reasons is that there are a lot of people who are very fed up with Microsoft. This monopoly who has locked them into quite expensive buying programmes and procurement programmes has upset them quite a lot.

"There are small organisations that simply don't have the money to invest in buying the whole suite of things, so they can pull something off the net and start building it up for very little cost." He also believes that Linux's ability to develop functionality quickly puts it at the cutting edge.

"Linux is coming along in leaps and bounds, much faster than Microsoft," he says. "A lot of the features you're going to see in the next version of Windows, we're actually going to release ahead of them."

Linux has been popular in universities and government organisations as well as in industrial applications, as McDonnell explains: "The main industries that benefit from it are oil and gas. They're getting incredible power out of running reservoir simulation packages on Linux grids, and you'll get a thousand grid [computers] running in a many of the major oil companies, all on Linux."

There have also been marked improvements in performance for some of the companies that have started using Linux. Jamie Partington, country manager at Novell, says: "Oracle has actually set some benchmarks. It has been running its 10G applications on a Suse Linux operating system and it has achieved world records in the number of transactions per minute."

||**|||~|HP-Yasser-Ragaei200.jpg|~|Ragaei: We design around the fact most companies use more than one operating system.|~|A major UAE bank recently switched all of their systems to Suse Linux. Partington says: "They have fully standardised their back end and the desktop as well, and they've actually created some of their own applications in house, all based in Suse Linux."

Novell launched the Mono project in 2001 to support developers and encourage them to port to Linux.

However, Hein van der Merwe, senior data centre architect, Sun Microsystems, believes that the most popular open source operating systems are not as free as they purport to be.

"Linux has a connotation of freeness and openness which does not exist in Red Hat or Suse necessarily, as they are commercial enterprises that need to make revenue out of their particular operating system," he says.

"If you look at Red Hat it has a product called Fedora which is not the same as its enterprise server, and you can't deploy its enterprise server for free. If you ever want to move to the enterprise version of it, you basically have to reinstall or redeploy the whole environment."

Sun has released an open source version of Solaris 10, its latest operating system, which is freely available from a website. Its code is identical to the commercially available version.

"The free version of Solaris that you can deploy is 100% binary, the same thing as you can deploy with support," says van der Merwe.

"For us, the two are exactly the same, you either choose to take support in it or choose not to. The operating system and the functionality within it is still exactly the same."
Van der Merwe believes that this is the first time an enterprise-level OS has been distributed freely, and says that it will also feed back into future development.

"Since we started the Open Solaris initiative we've already integrated multiple commits from community members into the core Solaris piece, and these will actually carry forward into the next major release of Solaris in the future," he adds.

It seems that most hardware vendors are now supporting Linux, together with Unix and Windows. Yasser Ragaei, business manager for enterprise systems, HP Middle East, thinks that it is not realistic to expect companies to use only one operating system.

"We believe that most of the enterprises today are a multi-operating system environment, so we do not believe that any enterprise could stay or standardise on one operating system," says Ragaei.

"We see Linux coming very fast into the picture, plus other proprietary operating systems like NonStop kernel, OpenVMS, or maybe OS400 from IBM , still play a major role in enterprises today and for the next few years. So we believe in the multi-operating system and we design all our enterprise strategy on this fact."

HP's Integrity servers are the only ones on the market to be able to run every operating system, according to Ragaei. Support from hardware vendors is crucial if an OS is to thrive, he says.

||**|||~|Kilani,-Bashar200.jpg|~|Kilani: Linux can not only cut development costs, but also the total cost of ownership.|~|Microsoft argues that, just as it has done with the development of Vista with its different editions for different types of user, so is there a need in the market for different server editions. It says it is an area that alternatives are neither addressing adequately nor as comprehensively as Windows does.

"Today, servers have different roles: you have web servers, file and print servers, network infrastructure servers and so forth," says Desmond Nair, business group manager, service and tools, Microsoft. "What Microsoft is adopting, and we've started providing it already, is role-based servers.

"Because of the different Vista editions, customers will have the flexibility of choosing an edition of the operating system specifically for the types of users they have. Longhorn server will have a similar kind of technology, so if all a customer wants is fileserver technology he would not be paying for all the additional stuff that Windows server comes with."

Bashar Kilani, manager of IBM's software group for the Middle East, Egypt and Pakistan, believes that Linux has particular technical merits. "Linux is a version of Unix so it has the technical capabilities of Unix, in terms of scalability, performance, availability, ease of use, all of these things," he says. "So I think it is technically superior to other operating systems."

He believes that developers benefit particularly from using an open source operating system. "One operating system that's open source, every hardware vendor can make it run on their technology," Kilani says. "If you have an application, in a small company you can run it on a Windows box or on a PC, in a big company you can run it on a RISC machine, the one that runs Unix boxes, and in a huge company you can have the same application on a mainframe.

"You don't have to change code, you don't have to develop it twice, your deployment costs go down by 40% when you're maintaining one code base and just deploying it on different hardwares. That's a huge value proposition for Linux."

"Of course, there's also the value proposition that it's financially cheaper," he adds. "If you look at it all in all, the total cost of ownership of an application on Linux compared to other things is probably 40% to 50% cheaper and that's a big reason for going with Linux."

However, there may be other considerations that will delay the take up of Linux by end users. "I think on the server side there's a huge drive," says Kilani. "Now, will Linux ever be very successful on the desktop? That's a very interesting question, because you need to have end user applications and productivity tools."

From a desktop perspective KPMG's Lamba says: "With a distribution like [Linux] Ubuntu now it's definitely desktop ready, and not just in the Middle East but globally that people are accepting it."

The introduction of Vista, according to Lamba, could be the trigger for many companies to migrate to another operating system. Microsoft's new Vista operating system will be available to business customers in November 2006, with the Arabic version released at the same time.

"Vista is very resource-intensive, so you have PCs that are currently running Windows 98, XP, 2000 that do not have the hardware compatibility to upgrade to Vista and as Microsoft starts to close off support for those volumes you're going to see operating systems trying to come into that niche area. That is definitely something the Middle East would move towards," he says.

"Given the amount of investment in desktops and given the amount of investment in operating systems, an upgrade path to Vista would require you to pour in much more money, not only because of the operating system but also because of the hardware upgrades," he says.

Microsoft is convinced, however, that the enhanced functionality of Vista and the fact that it gives users a choice to meet specific requirements will ward off the Linux threat to the desktop, pointing out that despite all the hype around the Linux desktop over the years, it has yet to see any wide scale adoption. There will be six versions of Vista, each intended for a different size of organisation and type of user. Its powerful relationships with PC and mobile equipment vendors will also help it secure its market.

"We're very closely aligned with a lot of hardware vendors - pretty much everyone you can name," says Microsoft's Nair. "And a lot of companies choose the Microsoft applications purely because we have these close ties with hardware vendors in terms of compatibility and flexibility of usage of the operating system with the pieces of hardware."

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