NT Eyed as Windows-to-Linux Migration Link

Friday Mar 26th 2004 by Alexander Wolfe
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Big Blue sees opportunities as the older o/s is phased out. But analysts say migration involves more than just technology comparisons.

Thanks to explosive growth in the market for Linux servers, more IT managers are pondering what might be involved in a Windows to Linux migration.

In a bid to turn potential interest into action, Linux support shops such as IBM and Timesys are trying to nudge customers off the fence about whether to switch. In the process, they have their eye on Windows NT, which is being phased out as an older enterprise operating system, as a potential in for Linux.

For example, IBM has been touting its Windows-to-Linux roadmap. And Timesys has rolled out five white papers discussing the 2.6 kernel.

"The transition from Windows to Linux is sort of a techno-political event," explained Chris Walden, author of the IBM roadmap and an ebusiness architect in the company's developer relations group. "There are technical, business, and economic reasons wrapped up in there, and you're also changing traditions."

IBM and other Linux supporters point to data indicating increased adoption of Linux as a way to raise the question of migration. Though market analysts IDC said last fall that Windows will maintain its position as the dominant server operating systems through 2007 (with a 55.1 percent share in 2002, the most recent year for which figures were available), IDC reckons Linux server shipments accounted for 23.1 percent of worldwide sales in 2002.

Tech research firm Gartner reports that Linux machines were the highest growth sector of the server market in 2003. Last year, HP and IBM each saw a 60 percent rise in Linux system sales. HP's revenue in that market rose to $927 million, compared to $581 million in 2002. IBM's grew to $552 million, from $345 million year-over-year.

For its part, IBM sees opportunity for more Linux uptake in a particular server sector: Microsoft's Windows NT. Microsoft has given customers 12 months' notice that it will officially end support of the eight-year-old NT 4.0 on Dec. 31, 2004. "The users of Windows NT 4.0 realize they have to move somewhere by the end of this year," said Adam Jollans, Linux strategy manager at IBM. "Microsoft wants them to move onto Server 2003. But they also realize that now they've got a choice, and Linux may make sense in a number of cases."

Gartner server analyst George Weiss said this may be a group of Windows users most amenable to a Linux switch. "IBM is targeting the right market, older installations that are virtually obsolete," he said. However, he added that many of those sites might be likely to stick with Windows and upgrade to Server 2000. "For those that are Windows shops, and that are very production focused in terms of applications and databases, I don't think there's going to be much movement," he said.

Still, Weiss said, "IBM doesn't target anything that's less than a multimillion dollar opportunity." So Big Blue must believe it has a good shot at some wins. "Every win for Linux is a new opportunity for IBM to sell software and services," he added.

Page 2: The 2.6 Factor

Until recently, several factors worked against Linux regarding Windows-to-Linux decisions.

First, Linux wasn't considered ready for enterprise level applications. But the release of a more stable and enterprise-ready 2.6.x kernel last December has ushered in more mainstreaming of Linux.

"I think 2.6 is quite significant, not only in terms of stability and range of hardware it supports, but also in terms of the spectrum of uses to which it can be put," said William von Hagen, senior product manager at embedded Linux company Timesys Corporation. "At the small end, it has support for systems that don't have a memory management unit (MMU) . At the high end, it's scalable, with support for multiprocessors."

But another stumbling block for Linux has been confusion about sourcing. "One of the things that's held up adoption has been that there have been many different distributions," explained von Hagen. "I think now the distributions are coalescing."

Distributed Distro Approach

IBM's Walden believes IT managers should avoid becoming too dependent on any one provider and remain focused on maintaining good Linux compatibility. "I personally in my technical consultations advocate being as distribution agnostic as possible," he said.

Agnosticism is beneficial, according to Walden, "Because you don't know for certain the direction in which Red Hat or SuSE is going to go. Red Hat has had a couple of twists and turns lately in their approach to things, and locking yourself into a particular distribution is no different than locking yourself into Windows -- you haven't gained anything. So having flexibility, and being centered on the technology of Linux, means that as changes occur, you'll have the ability to be swift on your feet and make a move if it makes sense to do so."

Another long-time Linux bugbear that its supporters are addressing is its reputation as a difficult installation process. "I think it's much easier than ever before," said Timesys's von Hagen. "If you look at Red Hat, SuSE, or Mandrake, their installers are really quite mature as far as detecting hardware and automatically customizing your system."

While Linux may be becoming more Windows-like in terms of ease-of-use, both Walden and von Hagen emphasized that key differences remain between the operating systems.

"One of the key things people have to keep in mind is, Linux was designed from the get-go to live on a network," explained Walden. In contrast, Windows was originally architected as file-and-printer oriented software.

"When you start out with Linux, you have a great deal of virtualization that is built into the system because of that network philosophy," Walden said. "Devices are spoken to as nodes, which can be accessed on the local system or on a remote system." He also pointed to Linux's layered design, in which the graphical interface is layered on top of the shell interface, which in turn resides on top of the device interface.

"Some of that is true of the Windows architecture, but it's not really exposed to the user as easily as it is within the Linux environment," Walden said.

For many IT managers, the Windows versus Linux equation may not be an either/or situation. According to Gartner analyst Weiss, users that have gone down the Windows path "with any degree of seriousness" for mission-critical applications are not likely to scuttle their setups.

But a company -- particularly if it has an advocate in its chief information officer-- may add in Linux if it's seen as filling a pressing need. "A site may go to two branches," Weiss explained. "There may be Windows apps in some branches and Linux, for example, in the infrastructure." He pointed to the open-source Apache Web server as one infrastructure application that could drive adoption.

Moving forward, IT decisions about Linux are likely to revolve around complex business and technical assessments, as opposed to the simplistic religious arguments of pervious years.

"In terms of why we're seeing customers moving from NT to Linux, reliability, security, and flexibility seem to be the drivers, rather than cost of ownership," said IBM's Jollans.

"Microsoft's effective strategy is high uptime availability and enhanced security," said Weiss, speaking of Windows Server 2003. "There's a perception that Linux is a great [total cost of ownership] proposition. It can be in some cases, but it may not be in others."

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