October 27, 2003

Enterprise Linux Forum: Small but important event

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Big shows like LinuxWorld get loads of press attention and, because of this, are often where vendors and free software projects make their most important "Lookit our new whatever!" announcements. But smaller conferences, such as last week's Enterprise Linux Forum [ELF], are just as important in their own way and may even be more effective venues for Linux advocacy than the giants. That's why I like to go to them whenever I can.Sometimes it's not the size of the audience that matters, but the quality. It may seem wasteful to have a high-end speaker such as Ximian's Nat Friedman talking about desktop Linux advances to a room with only 30 or 40 people in it, but when half of those people are highly-placed IT executives or government agency CIOs, and many of them are taking notes and asking cogent questions, Nat is probably doing more good in a "Let's spread the Linux word" sense than he'd do in front of 200 LUG members who already run Linux all day.

ELF was not a free software haven

A majority of the (guesstimated) 350 attendees were management people, not techies, more interested in learning how to use Linux for reliability and cost savings within their organizations than in discussing the fine points of the GPL.

Decidedly un-free Oracle was the event's largest sponsor. (Disclosure: NewsForge owner OSDN was an ELF "media sponsor.") Other large software companies whose programs run on Linux or who make commercial programs based on open source projects -- notably IBM -- were also out in force, as were hardware manufacturers ranging from HP to IBM to small blade server manufacturers.

This show was about practical, commercial Linux, not about Linux for computer enthusiasts or hobbyists. The very name -- Enterprise Linux Forum -- made this clear.

Jon 'maddog' Hall of Linux International also made this clear in his opening keynote speech, which included several examples of businesses that have successfully switched to Linux. He spoke directly to and for IT managers, not to or for programmers or sysadmins.

Show host Brian Proffitt, best known as managing editor of LinuxToday (which is owned by ELF organizer Jupitermedia), also spoke repeatedly of Linux in business, with only a little talk about licensing issues.

Hardly any SCO worries

You'd think, in a crowd discussing enterprise Linux rollouts, that SCO's legal maneuvers would be a hot conversation topic, but SCO was barely mentioned by speakers. Their licensing schemes generated no audience questions in the sessions I attended, nor was SCO mentioned at all in my hearing during casual conversations in hallways or during meals.

Indeed, the only mention of SCO I heard from an attendee was from the IT manager for a medium-sized wholesaler who's probably going to move to Linux from SCO's Unix. And he is planning to make this move purely for cost reasons, not because of any moral objection to SCO's recent corporate actions.

Nothing new for the Linux faithful

I heard hardly anything at ELF that I hadn't heard before, except for Red Hat's announcement about moving almost entirely to enterprise positioning and moving "free" Red Hat efforts to the Fedora Project.

A reasoned view of Linux in the enterprise

My favorite presentation -- and one of the most informative -- was given by Jon Eunice, president of analyst firm Illuminata Inc. Instead of giving you an in-depth reprise of his speech here, let's just link to a fine report on it from former NewsForge managing editor Grant Gross, who is now writing for IDG news.

Grant's story, provocatively titled "Linux: Not always the best IT answer?" says:

"Eunice urged the attendees at the conference -- mostly IT managers interested in open-source software -- to make decisions about using Linux and other open source software based on what's best for their businesses, not on the near-religious arguments that have dominated the open source vs. proprietary debate. But he also countered critiques by companies such as Microsoft Corp., saying he finds no basis for the claims that open source stifles innovation."

Overall, Eunice was positive about both Linux and open source but pointed out that concerned IT managers should not embrace any particular software coding or licensing methodology. Instead, they should take a totally pragmatic view of their corporate (or government agency) needs and find the tool that best fits those needs. In line with this generally practical attitude, Grant gave us this direct quote from Eunice:

"There is no need to go and learn a secret handshake or learn a hymn book to adopt Linux and open source. There is no vow of obedience and fidelity. You can mix and match, and no one should be angry at you for doing so. It does not require joining a commune; it does not require drinking the Kool-Aid."

Naturally, some of the Linux Faithful in attendance (and there were some there) wanted to argue about this a bit and wanted to know how Eunice could possibly not consider Linux the be-all and end-all for desktop and laptop use by every living human on this planet.

I personally feel Eunice was rational in his discussion of what Linux does and does not do well, especially considering that his presentation was geared for a mainstream, business-oriented audience that has probably never considered using anything other than Windows on their personal computers -- even if Linux is gradually taking over their server rooms.

But that's just me. I'm a Linux user, not a Linux zealot, and I watched most of the corporate-looking heads in Eunice's audience of 50 or so nodding along with him as he made his points. Sometimes -- especially when dealing with enterprise-level IT executives -- "cool" advocacy like Eunice's is better than hot religious fervor.

We need more small Linux advocacy meetings

This was not a cheap event to attend. Complete passses to everything ran nearly $1,000. I'd like to see a lower entry fee and more attendance, but that's just me. I suppose, in an enterprise context, the cost of a couple of Windows Server and IIS licenses is worth spending for a few of your company executives who are considering a money-saving switch to Linux and in return for that small sum can get advice from Moshe Bar and Don Becker about grid and clustering options, plus a chance to meet with both marketing people and techies from IBM, Oracle, HP, and other vendors that have many enterprise-level, Linux-based offerings, not to mention a chance to hear directly from other IT people who have already switched to Linux about the problems and benefits they encountered as a result of the changeover.

It was good to see a conference devoted entirely to enterprise Linux held in Washington, D.C., and I'd like to see other conferences with similar themes held in Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, St. Louis, and other cities that don't get public Linux hoopla very often.

I'd also like to see more "home grown" low-cost or free Linux advocacy events in cities of all sizes, all over the world, along with more Linux presence at local and regional "general" computer and IT shows. My local LUG regularly gets involved with trade shows, primarily through the outstanding efforts of member Bill Preece.

I heartily encourage others, all over the world, to follow in Bill's footsteps, and we will certainly post notices about your event(s) here on NewsForge to help spread the word.

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