Linux brain training better than no-brainer: de Salis

Beyond the attraction of open source per se and the pricing of Linux, its popularity is building for one very conventional reason, says longtime Unix user Roger de Salis.

"It's the same reason Microsoft succeeded with Windows or Sun with Solaris. They [the builders of open source software] understand applications," says de Salis, a one-time staffer at Cisco and involved in InternetNZ.

What the user wants is a good repertoire of applications, he says. Linux has now reached critical mass in that respect.

"The current Debian distribution has almost 9000 packages available for it." And it doesn't matter that about 5000 of those might be low-quality, he says. Users will find the good ones.

Does an application library of variable quality not rebound on Linux, with the risk of affecting the operating system's reputation? It's a little early to tell whether such failings will prove a significant handicap, but there is a slow and steady growth rate in Linux use at present, he says.

"The other big change [likely to accelerate Linux adoption] is that the cost of hardware has decreased to the point where it's less than [a typical user's suite of] Microsoft software.

"This [disillusionment with Wintel costs] has been aided by Microsoft's mistakes with its licensing. They tried to move customers to a subscription model and it didn't happen."

The commercial Unix variants are not following in Linux's wake, he says. Rather their market share is being eroded by the Linux/open source rise.

"There are constantly new applications and news boxes [hardware platforms] supporting it."

The three flagship applications, entrenching Linux even into organisations whose management may see them as Microsoft shops, are the Apache web server, the database system Postgres and Samba for Linux/Microsoft interoperability.

So why does Windows continue to dominate the market? That is a largely a matter of familiarity, de Salis says, enhanced by the Windows-only orientation of Microsoft's familiar Office application suite and the fact that Microsoft "has done a really good job of [simplifying] the OS install".

He does not see Microsoft's practice of online updates and bug-fixes as a plus.

"They're not just fixing bugs, they're loading more software on, which takes up more storage space and demands more computing power."

And frequently, he says, updates load more bugs. The user organisation, he argues, should have control over which upgrades it takes on.

As for the comparative difficulty of Linux install, de Salis quotes Unix pioneer Ken Thompson, at a New Zealand Uniforum conference in 1981.

"He said 'I didn't write Unix for the inexperienced user; I wrote it to be powerful'. In Linux, you have a very stable product. And I'd say we're within 80% of Microsoft in terms of user friendliness.

"But I admit Linux rewards study."

Linux sneaks unseen into mainstream computing. IT managers desperate to keep up with capacity requirements are putting up Samba servers.

"A Samba server just looks like one more chunk of disk resource to Microsoft. Management doesn't know it's there. But it means they don't have to fund a lot of expensive hardware and more licences."

A year later, when the Linux message seeps through to management, "the tech staff say: 'we've been running it for ages and it's very reliable', and management might say: 'I wonder if we could try putting application X on it'."

As well as better security and full separation between user and administrator, Linux scores on applications, with major vendors producing Linux versions of their apps and contributions coming in from the whole user community.

"Microsoft cannot keep up with the programmers who are pouring code into SourceForge."

There are no guarantees of the quality of such code, he acknowledges.

"But we often hear that support through the internet [from knowledgeable users] is more efficient than vendor support. You have to decide what works for you; having the crutches of a vendor or using your own [and other users'] brains. There is benefit in having brains."

Does such vendor reliance not follow a general outsourcing trend?

"If you've got no brains, you will outsource," he says. Outsourcing does have a role in some business situations, he acknowledges.

"A lot of businesses use temporary outsourcing as a mechanism for change." But outside such special-purpose roles "outsourcing amounts to an admission that I don't know what I'm doing".

Management, by encouraging that way of thinking, is entrenching a "no brains" environment, he says. "But faster, cheaper and more efficient will win out in the end."

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