Thursday, August 03, 2006

The demise of Linux

I read a quick editorial which suggests that Ubuntu Linux is going to be the downfall of Red Hat. The premise being that as Red Hat grew more commercial, and abandoned its community in favor of its stockholders, the sys-admins who used Red Hat as their desktop OS drifted away from the Red Hat camp. As Ubuntu came into being, and did so in a very strong way, those SA-types who were driven away from Red Hat will now want to put what they are more familiar with (Ubuntu) on their servers when they have the choice.

This whole discussion brought me right back down memory lane. I started using Linux before Red Hat existed with a few early Slackware distributions. I remember writing all those 3" diskettes - somewhere around 80 of them by the time I burned the X-windows distribution as well. Shortly after came Red Hat, and at that time I was helping to set up the first Linux environment at SUNY Plattsburgh. We switched over from Slackware to Red Hat, and loved it.

I ended up sticking with Red Hat for the next 10 years. It was the OS of choice when I lead a project to build servers for our local Boy Scouts of America council, and remained there until Red Hat went totally commercial, burning the bridges out from under us. Make no mistake, I was extremely disappointed with their decision. We switched over to Fedora Core, and for the most part it has been a smooth transition. Despite its big red "DEVELOPMENT" stamp, Fedora has been very good to our availability. In fact, at the moment we've got an impressive uptime on an FC2 system:

# uptime
21:41:15 up 412 days, 2:37, 2 users, load average: 0.00, 0.00, 0.00

But thinking back on the experience I have an entirely different memory of what direction I was forced in, and where I wanted to be. The places I've worked would not consider using Linux for their production environments. Linux has made some great in roads t the corporate world, but there aren't a lot of Fortune 500 companies running their SAP central instance on Linux. I'm sorry, it's just not happening. HPUX, AIX, and Solaris are king in the land of mission-critical highly scalable UNIX servers.

Although Solaris never made a particularly compelling desktop, it's what I've wanted to use on every server I've ever built. It's rock-solid, well documented, and very cohesive. When you use Solaris and Sun products, you rarely get the impression that 10,000 individual developers all tried to do it "their way" when the final build was cast in stone. What always stopped me was cost. Solaris x86 had pathetic support and commitment in the past. It's so incredibly painful to migrate between operating environments that I never wanted to risk Solaris x86 being yanked - which it was.

The second big barrier was cost. If you went with Sparc, you had to have money. Lots of money. Oodles of money! What I had was a basement full of x86 architecture hardware, and the not-for-profits I volunteer at had the same. There was simply no funding for shiny Sun hardware no matter how badly we wanted it.

And then the sleeping giant awoke. After being pummelled by the dot-com crash, Sun figured out what went wrong, and executed one of the m most amazing feats of corporate intertia changes I've ever seen. In a very short time frame, support for Solaris x86 was restored at a full commitment level. And it was made free. Then they continued to make their Java Enterprise System free to download and use as well.

So, the making of a fantastic Linux in Ubuntu may hurt Red Hat, but it's not what will deliver the killing blow. Red Hat has an opportunity right now to try to pull off a corporate inertia swing of Sun's magnitude. They need to restore faith in the community restore the religion they destroyed and find some kind of innovation to draw people back in. Solaris has done all of this and created an affordable support model that doesn't intimidate the small businesses who were once driven to Linux.

The first blood has been drawn by Solaris, but the second wound is far deeper. This second wound is bleeding internally and missing a lot of coverage. Mac OS-X is the killer desktop. If you have a reason to be using UNIX on a desktop, then using anything other than Mac OS-X is a tough sell in my book. Hardware is a bit more expensive, sure. But it's the best of every world, and solid as a rock. It doesn't hurt that it looks great either.

A recent seminar I attended talked about business models and knowing when to have the guts to drop a design. The idea was that you need to look at things you're developing and ask whether or not they give you a long-term sustainable advantage. I have to use that same litmus test to examine Linux. In the server world I can get free and open Solaris which is out-innovating Linux in my observation. And on the desktop, while Linux continues to improve, it's not even close to Mac OS-X.

In the end, these observations mean little to the tech-hobbyist who loves Linux for its religion. But in the business world, religion doesn't make IT choices. Competitive advantage does.

No comments: