FOSE: A Penguin's Report from the Capital

Assistant Editor Jason Schumaker reports on the IT gathering for Washington, D.C.'s government geeks. FOSE (pronounce the "E", please) is a trade show dedicated to informing government IT professionals. The 24th annual event took place April 18-20 at the Convention Center in Washington, DC. Tim Bogart invited me to attend the event--to cover the "Linux invasion".

Tim is a member of the Northern Virginia Linux User's Group (NOVALUG), and played a key role along with Billy Ball in bringing the first Linux Pavilion to FOSE. He convinced the show coordinators to award NOVALUG a complimentary booth and that Linux was worthy of pavilion space. While the pavilion was small compared to the small cities put together by Microsoft, Apple and IBM, the fact that Linux was there, it was visible and so many volunteers donated their time to simply chat Linux, is what really matters. Linux enjoys high visibility at most tradeshows, but in this case it was long overdue and gave the feel of the early days, when Linux wasn't well represented. The folks from NOVALUG are trying to change this, quite frankly, because too much money is involved.

As Tim put it, "I know COMDEX is really important to a lot of people, but FOSE is important to less people, who are responsible for spending a lot more money." The federal government, the largest computer-related customer in the world, spends some $35 billion each year on hardware, software, support and so on. And, according to numbers from FOSE, "spending by the federal government on IT security is expected to reach almost $1 billion by 2005." The question to answer: where does Linux come into play? Currently, the Federal government is Microsoft's most lucrative customer. We all know how much the Fed likes to overspend. Who can forget the $500 hammer, or how a certain president paid hundreds of dollars for haircuts while aboard Air Force One? This want/need to overspend certainly isn't helping Linux any, as perceptions of free/open-source software are still negative in many IT minds. Still, having a Linux Pavilion at FOSE is a start, and hopefully more and more government IT professionals will begin to pitch Linux to their bosses.

I talked with Dan Kusnetzky of IDC, and his numbers show "about 4.1% of Linux server software goes to government users in the US." He did point out that these numbers do not reflect free downloads. Dan explained that "Linux is found running three basic types of workloads: web infrastructure, high performance technical computing and digital content creation. The government usage usually falls into the second category." So the "4.1%" number could be much higher, but even if it were double or at 10%, there is much room for expansion. It is up to the members of the Linux community to show the feds just what Linux can do.

Their were a number of Linux-related companies attempting to do just that at FOSE. Inside the Linux Pavilion were Applixware, Caldera, BarCharts, Axonet, Inc., and HorizonLive. Outside the pavilion, Corel held a formidable spot, an aisle or two down from Microsoft. They were touting Corel LinuxOS and WordPerfect for Linux. There were presentations throughout the day, showing various uses of Corel's offerings (including the Microsoft stuff). I caught a few minutes of the WordPerfect for Linux demonstration and found it informative. I talked to an unnameable employee of the Department of Justice, who was "checking out WordPerfect, because I expect to be using it at work soon." (It's funny how so many of the people I talked to from various government agencies refused to give their names, or reveal the exact department in which they worked.) This person, who we will call "Mr. Mysterious", was referring to a deal in January between Corel and the Department of Justice. The DOJ has licensed some 55,000 seats of Corel WordPerfect software. Mr. Mysterious said, "I think it will be good to learn something new." When asked how others in his department felt about the upcoming switch, he replied, "I'm not too sure. Overall, it seems like most people are dreading it, since training is involved."

Mr. Mysterious has a point, in that much of what keeps Linux out of Microsoft-dominated companies is fear of change, or inadequacy. This is a problem with perception. Specifically, many don't believe that Linux has enough in the way of applications. While this might be true to an extent, there are many applications available that these people probably don't know about yet. The general reaction from people at the Corel booth was of surprise: both that Linux "looked so much like Windows" and that "Linux seems so easy to use" (as I overheard a few people saying). I didn't make it to the TerraSoft Solutions booth, but read on Slashdot that Kai Staats was demonstrating Yellow Dog Linux 1.2 on the G4. Timothy writes, "After one of these demonstrations, NIST robotics researcher David Gilsinn told me, "My scientific work, it's on UNIX, so I have to either run X or go sit at a UNIX box to do it, so that [Linux on G4] looked like a really good option."

Another area of concern, mentioned a number of times, was Linux development. Emily Pins, who was courageous enough to give her name (but not her department, sheesh!) works for the Feds and said it best. "Linux has little in the way of standardization, and people don't know how to use it. I use Linux at home, but expecting all 300 people in my department to re-train, is asking too much." Linux is developing so quickly that the necessity of training users will be an integral part of using Linux. Training costs money. While the use of Linux will save much in licensing fees, trying to convince government people to pay for training (and be trained themselves) is more difficult. The bottom line is that Linux companies need to differentiate themselves from other software; show the benefits of switching from NT to Linux, for example. I don't know whether cost will be a good enough reason. Since when has saving money been the highest priority for the federal government?

Others I talked to throughout my brief two days at FOSE brought up a variation on "is Linux really able to handle our needs?" Unfortunately, I was not the *best* person to answer some of the more technical questions, but I tried to point these folks in the right direction. That's what the Linux vendors and area LUG members were there to do. On April 19th, the NOVALUG folks put together a panel discussion called "Linux Solutions." Please read the summary of this event, submitted by NOVALUG reporter Karl Pena. The participants were Chris Dibona (VA Linux), Paul McNamara (Red Hat), Billy Ball (Linux author), Jan Silverman (SGI) and Renee Schmidt (Corel).

So, the show was a success, and the work of the NOVALUG people should be applauded. Tim Bogart fully intends to work toward making the Linux Pavilion bigger than Microsoft's (I wonder if they will have two pavilions after the break-up: one for Windows, one for the Internet?) for next year's FOSE tradeshow. Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but it will be bigger. As Tim said, "I'm not done yet. Not by a long shot." You go, guy!

Jason Schumaker is assistant editor at Linux Journal. He can be reached at jason@ssc.com.

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