Microsoft’s reign over the information technology empire has been long and prosperous, but like most empires there are always small factions of dissidents nibbling away at the edges and waiting for an opportunity to usurp it. Clearly, the Linux operating system has been among the most voracious of

the nibblers over the past few years and there have been a number of recent developments that suggest it has some chance of gaining some territory from the reigning monarch.

Recent IT industry news has been liberally sprinkled with stories on the growth of the Linux operating system in the corporate world. It’s well known that IBM has been offering a Linux operating system alternative for its RS/6000 line for systems for a number of years. Novell has recently shifted its strategic direction heavily towards the support and development of Linux products since its acquisition of SUSE Linux late last year. For local governments the watershed story on Linux would have to be the City of Calgary’s announcement of its intention to convert its massive server infrastructure to the Linux operating system. Staff at Calgary said cost containment was their primary motivation for the move to Linux. The Linux operating system is considered to be open source, which essentially means that the source code is in the public domain. Operating systems providers who base their products on the Linux core are able to distribute their product to customers without paying royalties. This results in an operating system that can be offered at much lower prices than Windows or Unix.

With an inventory of approximately 140 servers, Calgary had a significant financial incentive to take a risk on an operating system alternative.

But those local governments with significantly fewer servers than Calgary needn’t throw out their copies of various versions of Windows just yet. A recent survey published by Public Sector Research Inc. indicates that local government Linux implementations currently account for only .8 per cent of operating system installations while Unix accounts for only nine per cent. The same study tells us that the various versions of Windows represent a whopping 71 per cent of the local government operating system market.

The force of freedom

In spite of the fact that Linux represents a comparatively small share of the local government operating system market, it is probably safe to say it is the technology most likely to break Microsoft’s stranglehold. Linux enjoys an abundance of the critical attributes that a technology must possess to successfully initiate a wave of adoption: It’s cheap, efficient and well understood by many technology workers. While it doesn’t support many of the applications we enjoy on our desktops, it does support virtually all of those used in the server room environment. The most important Linux offering, however, is freedom from the tyranny of an intellectual property holder. Linux is essentially free to anyone who wants to use it and the source code is readily available. Such freedom is a mighty force in the technology world and it is very attractive to those who understand it. It is similar to the freedom Microsoft once offered from the tyranny of the old proprietary mini/mainframe technology which forced customers to buy everything from a single (and sometimes arrogant) supplier.

Large local governments will need no urging to look to the example set by Calgary. If risk avoidance were a force sufficient to maintain status quo, we would all still have our mainframe systems securely in place. The lure of the cost savings and freedom offered by Linux is bound to entice others to follow the trail blazed by Calgary. While local governments with little or no in-house technical resources are probably free to ignore Linux for now, medium-sized IT shops should attempt to keep track of Linux developments and even try to implement a system or two in Linux. If the big Linux wave comes, local government IT professionals need to be sure they have the skills necessary to survive the transition. Those with experience in Unix should have no problem, but Windows specialists may find the initial learning curve quite steep.

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