Mainstream Linux

Robin examines the ever-increasing presence of Linux in theserver, workstation and desktop markets.

Linus Torvalds says in his entertaining autobiography Just for Fun that when he started being asked if he thought Linux would someday take over the desktop and make a dent in Microsoft, he invariably replied that it would. That prediction hasn't come true yet, but there's growing reason to think it may. For insight into the growing Linux client OS business we'll talk with IBM, HP, Compaq, Dell, Gateway and SGI.

Linux first succeeded as a server platform running Apache, so much so that IDC reports that last year 27% of server operating systems sold were Linux, compared to 41% for Windows. But, last year Windows scored 91% of the desktop OS market, with Linux just at 1.4%. Apple continued its slide to 3.6%. Only Windows and Linux are showing growth as desktop operating systems: Windows up by 11%, Linux up by 25%. However, IDC is collecting new numbers to take into account the many free copies of Linux being installed and to count pirated copies of Windows, not just copies sold of each OS. IDC analyst Al Gillen notes, “The most common hardware for Linux systems is a recycled Windows PC.”

As a free operating system it may seem odd that today Linux is a greater commercial force in high-end workstations than in desktop PCs. Linux is migrating down from servers, not up from entry-level PCs. Reasons for this include Linux compatibility with other UNIX operating systems that dominate high-end platforms and the barrier of growing a new support infrastructure rather than using the established one for Windows. Note that you won't see any OEM dual-boot Windows/Linux systems because that is precluded by Microsoft's secret licensing terms with vendors, a point that the government failed to make in the antitrust case.

All the top PC manufacturers now offer Linux. Not long ago you needed to specify a secret Linux web page, but now you usually can drill down into Linux offerings from their home page. To jump straight to Linux see,, or Let's take a look at what the leading PC vendors are offering with Linux.

IBM's PC line includes IntelliStation workstations, NetVista desktops and ThinkPad laptops. The desktop NetVista N2200l comes with Turbolinux. ThinkPad Series A and Series T are available with OpenLinux eDesktop 2.4. The ThinkPad T22 is the first Linux computer ever to ship a licensed software DVD player, the InterVideo LinDVD. Linux open-source DVD players are avoided by manufacturers due to the infamous DeCSS lawsuit. Most DVD movies are copy protected, and the US DMCA law prohibits software capable of removing copy protection.

“Workstation users are switching to Linux because it is fast, simple and reliable”, says IntelliStation workstation director of marketing Doug Oathout. Although Linux is displacing Windows on servers, he hasn't seen it making much impact on Windows workstations; instead Linux is displacing other flavors of UNIX. Many flavors of Linux are supported. “We test Caldera, SuSE, Turbolinux and Red Hat on all models of IntelliStation”, says Oathout. “A lot of that testing involves graphics cards. ATI, NVIDIA and Matrox have Linux drivers, but 3Dlabs currently does not. We're working on that.” A significant part of IBM's one-billion-dollar commitment to Linux goes into testing and driver development.

“The IBM workstation market is strong for electronic design, and geoscience is coming on strong”, says Oathout. Having products available for Linux from EDA (electronic design automation) industry leaders such as Cadence and Mentor are encouraging users to switch from HP-UX (HP's UNIX) and Solaris to Linux. In the financial sector, IBM is seeing a mixed environment of Linux and Windows. Linux desktop applications for trading are available, but Reuters and Bloomberg access requires Windows. Popular Linux movie-making tools include Maya, LightWave and Softimage. The primary Linux CAD applications are ANSYS, Nastran and Patran, all for finite element analysis. “Oil and gas applications are up and coming”, says Oathout. “They will be converting over to Linux next year.”

CATIA is a Windows-based CAD system sold by IBM and developed in France by Dassault Systèmes. “CATIA V5 runs successfully on Linux”, says media relations spokesman Anthony Marechal. “From a marketing standpoint, we have made no decision so far but remain open to support CATIA running on Linux if the market pressure increases.”

Hewlett-Packard announced in September 2001 that it would acquire Compaq for $25 billion sometime in 2002. After the merger, the new company, with a combined revenue of $87 billion (HP $47 billion, Compaq $40 billion), will be close in market size to the $90 billion of IBM. Together HP and Compaq account for 75% of retail PC sales in US stores.

“We've been shipping Linux 3-D high-end workstations for about a year and a half”, says director of marketing Mike Balma. “Linux for digital content creation, Hollywood, is really showing growth thanks to support of industry standard applications like Maya, Houdini and Shake. In fact, Maya is only certified for Linux on HP workstations.” HP worked closely with DreamWorks in the Linux transition there (see this column in the August 2001 issue of Linux Journal). The HP workstation market is expanding in EDA, software development in telecommunications and large-screen financial trader applications. HP workstation buyers seem to be mainly former Solaris customers. As at IBM, Linux doesn't seem to be impacting the Windows workstation market yet.

All HP workstations are certified by Linuxcare for Turbolinux, SuSE, Red Hat, Caldera, Mandrake and Debian. Linuxcare CEO Arthur Tyde explains, “We do a thorough QA on each distro and an in-depth analysis of kernel performance against system devices such as IDE.” Instructions for overcoming installation obstacles on a per-model basis for HP, Compaq, IBM and Dell are on-line at

While Linux is available standard on HP workstations everywhere, Linux desktops and laptops are a special order except in Asia and Europe. “Eastern Europe is more open to Linux as a desktop”, says Balma. “They don't have the installed base of Windows and are more sensitive to price.” Because of Winmodem issues, HP Pavilion home desktops and laptops don't fully support Linux, but that is being worked on.

Former Debian Project Leader Bruce Perens joined HP as Linux strategist in December 2000. HP is making many of their drivers, particularly those for printers, open source. Open-source GNOME has been made the standard desktop for HP-UX. GNOME was independently adopted by HP and Sun at about the same time. HP denies they are offering their own Linux distro. “Some mistook our security-enhanced version of Red Hat for a distro, but it is really just a matter of bundling security with an existing OS”, says Balma.

Compaq Linux Program Manager Judy Chavis says, “I've been involved with Linux at Compaq for three years.” Compaq certifies with Red Hat, SuSE, Caldera and Turbolinux. “We don't see a lot of Linux desktop demand, but for workstations there is a lot of demand in EDA”, says Chavis. “Workstations are just starting to ramp up in the last six months, not much activity before that.” EDA, oil and gas, and digital content creation are the basis of Compaq's Linux workstation market. Linux is certified and shipped pre-installed on workstations but is not offered on Compaq desktops and laptops.

Magma Blast Chip Screenshot

Avanti Jupiter View of a Floorplan Flyline Analysis

EDA chip design software maker Magma Design Automation made their Blast Chip and Blast Fusion products available for Linux in May 2001. “Over the past year we have seen an increasing demand to deliver our products for the Linux OS”, says VP of Marketing and Business Development Bob Smith. Avanti, another leading EDA vendor, is preparing to offer an end-to-end chip design system for Linux in Q4. “In response to customer input, many Avanti products have already been ported to Linux over the past couple of years”, says Chief Operating Officer Dr. Paul Lo.

Dell Computer, currently number four in the market with $33 billion in revenue, will become number three after the HP/Compaq merger. With 28% of the world market going to the Dell Precision line, Dell is the number one workstation provider. Before adding Linux in late 1999, Dell workstations were Windows-only, although Novell NetWare and SCO UnixWare were available on servers. “We are seeing significant interest from the motion picture market”, says spokesman David Graves. Dell recently dropped US support for Linux consumer PCs, an offering that was on their web site but never widely promoted. “We're a customer-demand-driven company”, says Graves. “For corporate customers wanting custom factory integration of 50 or more units, we'll still burn their Linux disk image on OptiPlex desktops and Latitude laptops.” Dell has also stopped offering Linux to consumers in Australia.

Gateway, a PC maker with nine billion dollars in revenue, announced in August 2001 it is pulling back from global markets outside the US and may lay off 25% of its workforce. In an effort to improve customer service, Gateway announced in February 2001 that it was reducing the 23 million potential combinations of computers it sells to hundreds of configurations. “We don't offer Linux as a standard configuration”, says spokeswoman Lisa Emard, “but do provide it to larger customers as needed through our custom integration group.” Gateway cites insufficient demand to support Linux at retail.

SGI was the uncontested market leader for servers and workstations combining high performance with advanced graphics. SGI, with $1.5 billion in revenue, is now down to 11% of the market for such systems, mainly due to a market shift to Windows workstations. Linux is part of the SGI strategy to recover from an unrewarding diversification into Windows workstations and Cray supercomputers. Although SGI bought and later sold Cray, supercomputing remains a core business with the release of the Origin3000 in 2000, Origin2000 in 1996 and Challenge in 1993.

“Linux is very exciting to us”, says SGI Advanced Graphics Product Line Manager Simon Hayhurst. “Our goal is to get O2 and Octane capabilities onto lower-priced Intel machines. The PC has a lot of legacy issues. We're making high-performance IRIX components like XFS, OpenGL and Open Inventor available as open source in Linux.” As standard definition television is becoming viable on PCs, SGI is looking to HDTV as an emerging market where extra performance is needed. “We capture some piece of the high end from business generated by Dell”, says Hayhurst. “Low end always drives the high end.” SGI doesn't offer desktops or laptops.

MicroTron2000 offers the lowest-priced desktops we could find looking in the local (San Diego, California) computer rag, ComputorEdge. While bottom-of-the-line PC prices at the majors ranged from a low of $659 US at Dell to $799 US at Gateway, a complete MicroTron2000 PC starts at $418 US for an AMD Duron 750 ($239 US including 256MB P133, 10GB HD, CD-ROM, modem, 100BASE-TX) and 17" ViewSonic E70 monitor ($179 US). One thing not included in that price is any Microsoft software. That's $95 US extra for Win98, $139 US for Win2K and no Microsoft Office at all. Manager Charles Tran says, “We would like to include Linux as a free operating system but haven't been able to find a Linux expert to join our staff. We are looking to support Red Hat.”

As PC prices continue to drop, Microsoft software becomes the single most expensive component. There's an unmet opportunity in the low-end market to create a useful PC without Windows.

The World Bank estimates that of the planet's six billion people, more than 1.2 billion live on less than one dollar a day (mostly in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa). Two billion more people are only marginally better off. Proportionately, few people in the world have a PC. The US has 285 million people but constitutes 102 million of the 236 million people active on the Internet. Total PC shipments worldwide this year are expected to be 130 million units. With an annual world population growth of 75 million and a PC obsolescent cycle of just a few years, progress is very slow toward everyone having a PC. Windows is only taking the low-hanging fruit. A 37% price break, saving $241 US per PC, does make a difference in most of the world.

Mexico City is undergoing a two-year transition to open-source software, already in use at the department of motor vehicles. GNOME evangelist Miguel de Icaza, a former system administrator at a Mexico City university, made a personal appeal to President Fox to consider open source for Mexico's broad eMexico computer initiative. Government initiatives to employ open source are underway in Brazil, France, Germany, South Korea and China.

For the desktop, Microsoft Office has become the dam holding back a Linux flood. A significant alternative to Microsoft Office is StarOffice. Sun Microsystems spent $74 million acquiring StarOffice as a product to give away for free, then further confounded business analysts by announcing last year that it would make version 6.0 GPL, open sourcing nine million lines of code. Due for release in October 2001, OpenOffice 6.0 should be available by the time you read this. Anticipated enhancements include making the annoying integrated desktop feature optional, improved compatibility with Microsoft Office file formats and support for Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

Screenshot of Beta OpenOffice 6.0

In June 2001, Sun announced a US military commitment to StarOffice by DISA (Defense Information Systems Agency), the agency responsible for IT systems for the Pentagon and 600 other military organizations worldwide. StarOffice isn't displacing Microsoft, rather 10,000 UNIX copies of desktop suite Applix. Microsoft wasn't a contender for lack of Solaris support. StarOffice runs on Linux, Windows and Solaris. DISA anticipates deploying as many as 25,000 copies. Being free, StarOffice didn't net any revenue to Sun directly on the deal, but DISA has extensive support contracts with Sun.

An issue with government users is that Linux hasn't been certified as secure for military/government use (nor for that matter is Windows XP—only Windows NT 3.51). However, the NSA (National Security Agency) has developed a version of Linux called SELinux to push the state of the art in OS security. NSA, DARPA and other US agencies are funding open-source projects for millions of dollars.

With the release of Windows XP, Microsoft says it has finally put the Windows DOS legacy to rest. XP is based on 2K/NT, whose design is closest to VMS. Windows 2000 was the first reliable Windows OS but shares the annoying trait with Windows NT of pausing for seconds from time to time to do system housekeeping. XP introduces some new annoyances (or features), including dropping support of Netscape plugins, not including Java by default (a consequence of losing a lawsuit with Sun), special antipiracy measures (requiring registration locking to a particular machine signature), the .NET portal (or gatekeeper) and the usual upgrade thrash of incompatibilities with existing third-party applications.

Linux is established in the server market. It is storming the workstation market. It has a beachhead in the government market. The next barrier Linux must pass is the corporate desktop. No Fortune 500 company today has a significant Linux desktop deployment. But the increasing cost of Microsoft XP and broadening support for Linux are making many companies pause to consider. Ford Europe, with 33,000 desktops, has stated it is looking hard at Linux.

Most Windows desktop users merely want a Windows 98 that doesn't crash, that is not a moving target. In about one year Linux has come from nowhere to be the OS of choice for the motion picture industry. All the studios are converting to Linux, starting with DreamWorks, which has already released the first hit movie created primarily using Linux, Shrek. Now Linux is surging into other workstation markets like EDA. Advances in niche markets are strengthening Linux, improving its device driver and graphics support. Each improvement is removing an obstacle to the desktop. With broad industry support, Linux is unstoppable.

“Software is like sex: it's better when it's free”, according to Linus.



Robin Rowe ( is a partner in, a technology company that creates internet and broadcast video applications. He has written for Dr. Dobb's Journal, the C++ Report, the C/C++ Users Journal and Data Based Advisor.


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