Do we really have options?

by David Lane

I was going to explore the new trend of green IT or perhaps talk about the morality of threatening or blackmailing (your choice) software companies into fixing security holes, but an article in Computerworld about a hospital selecting a Linux-based email system with compatible features to Microsoft’s Exchange brought back to my mind a discussion I have had with others about the real choices there are in today's software wilderness.

What started the discussion was my thought that one does not have to look too hard to find a pundit saying you have options other than Vista. As a long-time Linux user and evangelist, I knew this to be truth, but with an asterisk. As a technician, I am technology agnostic. I want the best solution for the job, but, I also have to be conscious of cost, both personally and professionally. Now do not get me wrong, I am not cheap, but neither do I see value in paying more for less. So when my laptop died a couple of months ago, I sat down and did some research.

I actually had tinkered with the idea of going to a Mac. But I rapidly changed my mind. Putting the cost and requirements of the operating system aside for a moment and just looking at the hardware, it becomes clear that hardware is cheap, unless you are buying it from Apple. I wanted a dual-core machine, and about 4 GB of RAM. Disk is subject to change. I also wanted a light weight machine since it spends almost as much time on my back as it does on my desk. Today a 13" MacBook is available for $1,299 or $1,499 depending on whether you want a 160 GB disk or a 250 GB disk, each with 2 GB of RAM and a 2.4 Core2 Duo CPU. Two years ago, I was buying quad core (Intel) servers with 4 GB of RAM and 250 GB disk for $1000. The laptop I ended up with is a 15" screen on a 2.4 Core2 Duo with 3 GB of RAM and 250 GB of disk and cost me $700. I bought my wife a similar machine a month later with a 17" screen and a full keyboard for $100 less! So why would I buy a Mac? I could buy two laptops for the price of a single Mac with similar configurations.

And so, before I even have a discussion of operating systems, I have already ruled out an operating system simply because of hardware costs. Yes, I can get expensive PC compatible systems, but face facts. If an apples to apples comparison of basic features results in a higher cost of one platform over another, why would you?

So now I have my hardware. When I bought my machine, a Gateway in the case of full disclosure, it came with Vista Home on it and after making sure the hardware all worked, I set about reformatting it and loading Linux. Now before we get into the issues of the load, remember that Linux, despite the marketing and other issues, is nothing more than the kernel. The thing that makes everything else go. Sure, it is important, but, in the grand scheme of the debates over distributions, the kernel is always the same (unless we are talking BSD...different kernel). So the next choice is distribution. I am a fan of the Red Hat tree and run Fedora. I run Fedora mostly because I do a lot with Oracle and it just makes it easier to do things, so off I went to install my distribution, and very shortly ran into problems.

It would seem that the wireless network card was not detected. OK, not a big deal. A couple of Google searches and I would be able to fix that I figured. After all, my last machine suffered from the Intel 2200 patch issues and I managed to get it working, until a new kernel released and I had to do it again...and again... This time, I was stymied. The NIC did not seem to have a kernel patch or driver. At least not one I could easily find. And now, we have eliminated Linux as an operating system. So I installed Vista Ultimate.

I am also a consultant and as such, I am currently reviewing the environment of a customer who is dissatisfied with the current status quo and wants to make some changes and have flexible options without it costing an arm and a leg. Further, he needs to be able to connect multiple operating systems together to share information through files, code (SVN), email and wiki. They are currently running Windows on their primary server, which is limited to only two terminal (RDP) connections and there are several VPN connectivity issues. Further, the server is hosted by a hosting company so all administration has to be done remotely.

My suggestion is to move to Linux. Unlike my personal odyssey, most hosted companies support Windows and Linux equally and because of the requirements, such as Subversion, Jira/Confluence and multi-OS access, Linux is the most reasonable choice. Remote management is certainly easier, despite the leaps made by Windows in the realm of remote management tools. Further, there are more cost-effective software solutions available for a growing company with a limited budget. In some ways, I am lucky. The company is open-minded and willing to consider all of the options. By comparison, I had discussions with a branch of the US Federal Government that was seriously evaluating the desktop environment they had. As I dug further in to the task as it was explained, it sounded more like a customer looking to justify their current solution, because the entire back-end infrastructure, managed by another department within the organization, was 100% Windows based and they had no plans to change. And they had put in a requirement that whatever desktop system was selected, it had to work with, and be managed by, the Windows environment. I walked away from that one after the initial meeting.

In the end are there really options? Yes, we have options, but there are trade-offs. Cost versus functionality. Generic hardware versus proprietary (or availability). But at the end of the day, the options are sometimes limited, usually by politics, regardless of what we would prefer.

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