Linux doesn't have to be a religious decision

Last week was a good one for Linux. With a flurry of companies announcing their support, this increasingly popular OS is starting to look like a viable computing platform.

Even so, despite the claims of its vocal fans, Linux isn't yet sweeping the country.

Nothing fills my e-mailbox faster than a column about Linux. When I make a positive comment, I often hear from IT professionals who tell me how their Linux solution has been running for months or years while their NT solution seemingly dies daily. On the other hand, negative comments are a surefire invitation for flaming. Typically, the letter starts by challenging my background or technical capability and then quickly deteriorates to the equivalent of "Linux rules, dude!"

Now, I'm not trying to belittle Linux. When you think about how OS/2 has struggled despite being backed by the largest computing vendor in the world, Linux is doing remarkably well. It truly is an OS solution that has a place in the right situation. And it is gaining credibility daily.

Corporate users should find solace in the fact that Oracle, Informix and Netscape have all promised direct products for Linux. While none of them is known as a Microsoft lover, they are the first major companies to throw some credible weight behind this OS.

However, despite contentions from the Linux faithful, the backing of these three vendors doesn't signal a dramatic rejection of Unix or Windows NT. But it does add credibility to a growing alternative. A year ago, Linux wasn't even on the radar for most IT professionals. It had a loyal following that was largely overlooked.

Reminiscent of the zealots from the early PC days, these loyalists are fanatical. But in a good way. I was part of the crowd that was convinced PCs could challenge the dominant mini and mainframe offerings. Back then, Bill Gates' mantra of "a PC on every desk and in every home" seemed like a pipe dream. Today, we have hundreds of millions of computers installed in business and homes alike. And Gates is the richest man in the world.

There's no question that the dedication of Linux loyalists is having an effect. Today, Linux is regularly written about in the press and openly discussed in corporate IT alternatives.

Linux fans can continue this trend, not by burying columnists in e-mail or by quickly dismissing nonfollowers, but by leveraging their strengths and showing Linux to be a viable corporate offering.

For starters, existing Linux users need to show management that, although they chose Linux initially as a low-cost alternative, it has become a reliable component of their Internet infrastructure. They need to explain that, although Linux poses some challenges in support and tweaking, it serves the organisation better than the alternatives. In short, Linux users need to demonstrate that the OS is a business choice, not a religious one.

Next, the Linux loyalists need to spread the word about their OS alternative. They need to gather more organisation to embrace those who don't know about the offering, while keeping the focus on business value instead of on a "kill the evil empire" approach.

Finally, they need to focus on solving the product's own shortcomings, such as an inadequate installation routine that is bound to discourage all but the most patient IT professionals. Fortunately, meetings such as the recent Future of Linux conference in California, are keeping these challenges on the front burner.

Using this combination of nurturing and increased awareness, Linux can continue to evolve into the solution that its creator Linus Torvalds originally envisioned. Although he will never rival Gates in net worth, Torvalds can become the next folk hero for this industry, and his operating system can prove to be an important component in many business infrastructures.eWhat do you think? Does Linux have a role in the business environment, or will it always just be the operating system for the "enthusiast"? E-mail us and have your say

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