How Linux Makes Companies Smarter
Dell may be the top-selling PC brand, but the real best-sellers are no-name “white” boxes that are bought by the ton or built out of industry-standard parts on an as-needed basis. Customers love them, because they're cheap to buy and easy to replace. But we don't hear much about them. One reason we don't is their builders don't spend much money on advertising and PR. But a bigger reason is the computer industry has a long-standing prejudice against the word “commodity” and has a huge fear of “commodification”.
Commodification has long been a fact of life in the hardware business, but software still is widely considered a big margin category. Microsoft has a bad quarter when gross profit margins slip below 80%, and Oracle's worst quarter in the last five (at the time of this writing) was still over 75%.
But the software industry will have to face the fact that customers love commodities. One good example is the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR, www.ucar.edu/ucar/index.html) in Boulder, Colorado. In spite of its name, UCAR is a business with substantial customers that include the national air traffic control system. Greg Thompson, a scientist with UCAR, explains the decision-making process there:
Everybody here has a shelf full of O'Reilly books. We like to figure things out for ourselves. For example, I'm a scientist, not a programmer. But a while back I saw a need to get past manipulating data with Perl and text files. So I started reading up on databases and learning MySQL. I wouldn't have bothered if MySQL hadn't been free. We don't have five-digit figures around here to run Oracle. We don't need hard-core database stuff. We don't need transaction support. But we do need results that are Web-accessible, so MySQL made sense. Building internal expertise around something like MySQL is straightforward and easy. I do a little research on my own, see if something I need is already installed—and if it's not, I send a help-desk e-mail to a sysadmin. Then, the next day I download a Debian package, run apt-get and I'm in business. Without spending a dime.
It's amazing how small a software approval bureaucracy can get. When friction is low and costs are zero, free enterprise lives up to its name. “Our IT budget is zero”, says Elliot Noss, president and CEO of Tucows (tucows.com) in Toronto. Tucows' business is hosting one of the largest software download sites in the world, plus running one of the three top-level domain name registries (OpenSRS, resellers.tucows.com/opensrs), which manages around 3.5 million domain names, all on Linux, Apache, MySQL and PostgreSQL. “I can't even imagine what it would cost to work with a big Sun system or to run a big Oracle database”, Noss says.
Although network and technology companies are more willing to talk about using Linux and open source, other types of companies are quietly changing the way they handle software, too. Take this e-mail, for example, whose author requested anonymity:
I work for a Fortune 50 company whose IT has a new open-source policy, as well as a fully approved open-source toolkit (with an internal “brand name”) available for employee download from an internal web site. Already up to version 3.0, it comes in both UNIX and Windows flavors. It consists of GNU tools and others on the UNIX side and the Cygwin toolkit on the Windows side. Linux (Red Hat for now) is one of the “tools”.
The guy who heads up the toolkit project is a take-no-prisoners, free-software advocate, too. The stated purpose of the policy is to permit the company to save money by eliminating license fees and by streamlining the software acquisition process, but the clear subtext is to make it possible for the company to protect its intellectual property from third-party (that is, Microsoft) manipulation.
Part of the new policy is something of “don't ask, don't tell”. IT agrees not to complain if anyone decides to install these tools on whatever computer they use. All any nonmanagement employee now needs to do is get approval from his or her local manager to download and install the tools. Managers do not need anyone's permission to install the tools for themselves. Per the policy, IT does not get involved in any way. So spread of the tools—of Linux and the rest of the free software suite—happens naturally and organically.
Before the policy was implemented, even GNU Emacs required an official IT review/approval process. Even if your boss wanted it, IT could fight it if they wanted to. But with this new policy, that's now history.
Policy inevitably adapts to new facts of development life inside an organization. Today the trends among those facts favor Linux, big time. In a recent survey of Linux developers (who also work with other platforms), Evans Data Corp. observed a rapid shift away from proprietary UNIXes and Windows, in the direction of Linux:
Linux is the primary choice of host platform at 40%. Windows 2000 makes a strong showing at 29%, with Windows XP right behind at 12%. The landscape is about to change, however....Next year respondents plan to increase their use of Linux as the primary development platform by 15%, from 40% to 55%.
Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal