March 22, 2001

Federal computer show not exactly teeming with Linux

Author: JT Smith

- by Robin "roblimo" Miller -
Washington, D.C. -- I spent half a day cruising FOSE, the major government-oriented computer show, for signs of Linux and only found it visible on seven monitor screens out of thousands in various booths. But don't despair. A little Linux presence can go a long way.Except for a volunteer booth sponsored by the Northern Virginia Linux Users Group [NoVaLUG] and Mission Critical Linux next to them under a modest hanging sign describing this pair of small, out-of-the-way displays as the show's "Linux Pavilion," the only other Linux at FOSE was embedded in appliance-type devices of one sort or another in ways that made it literally invisible.

None of the major Linux companies had booths. But then, neither did any big-time Unix hardware or software vendors. Both IBM and Sun were notably absent, and Compaq had nothing but a token "desktop only" display. Hewlett Packard's booth seemed filled mostly with printers and other devices of that nature. And despite the overall government interest in clustered computing, there wasn't a single large-scale Beowulf-style system in sight from any vendor.

FOSE this year almost could have been called "Windows in Government." There was a smallish (and very popular) Apple display area, but otherwise it was Windows everywhere, from front to back, from top to bottom.

But you can't fault the big Linux and Unix players for their absence from this show. I spent a fair amount of time stirring around, watching and listening to the people (mostly government employees, of course) in attendance, and most of them were not technical folks. They were managers and office people for the most part, looking for things like virus protection and easier ways for their people to do things, not for technological advances.

I buttonholed about 50 randomly-selected show attendees and directly asked them if they were considering Linux for their offices, and in all but five cases I got blank stares followed by the question, "What's Linux?" Of the other five, two worked at the National Institutes of Health and were familiar with Linux but considered it useful only for servers and clusters, not for desktop use, and the other two worked at NASA and were all-day, everyday Linux users already, using FOSE as an excuse to get out of the office for a day, uninterested in the Windows products on display all around them. "But we saw a new underfloor wiring solution and looked at some nice systems furniture," one said, "so it's not like it's a totally wasted day."

The biggest single sign I saw with the word "Unix" in it was in Microsoft's (huge) pavilion. At this show, unlike in Ballmer speeches, Microsoft is taking both Unix and Linux very seriously. Their reps seemed to use the word "interoperability" more than almost any other. I watched a happy-chirpy Microsoft presentation about how to connect Microsoft workstations to a Unix server through an "innovative" Microsoft software product that, to me, sounded like nothing more than a pay-for package with about the same functionality as Open Source, GPL-licensed Samba. And that omission was, in some ways, a metaphor for what I found unsettling about FOSE and, by extension, the way my tax dollars are apparently being spent on computer hardware and software.

Many of the Windows-oriented products and services being touted at FOSE would be unnecessary if the government started using Linux instead of Windows. One of the best examples I saw of this was a "remote computer" setup offered that consisted of a small desktop box with drivers and hookups for keyboard, mouse, monitor and speakers that connected through a CAT-5 cable to a rackable chassis containing the rest of the (Windows) computer. The supposed advantage of this was that it put all the actually computers in one room for easy administration and, if desired, short connections to a fiber optic network. I looked at this product and mentally compared it with running a Linux server connected to thin-client X-terminals on the desktops, and hoped that none of my tax dollars were going to buy this silly Windows solution, which still required a complete PC for each user and individual "seat" licenses for all software. The person spieling me about this "innovation" said that users "would not accept anything less than the full PC experience they're used to at home" so "they will never accept X-terminals."

Mmmmm. He hasn't seen modern Linux-served X-terminals running everything from Netscape to StarOffice, has he? But I said nothing. I just stood there and listened and nodded.

And then there were the anti-virus people. They were all over the place. Think about it: These companies are selling products designed to overcome Windows defects! If the government used Linux instead of Windows in the first place, none of these "solutions" would be necessary. We can say the same about many of the products I saw that were supposed to "secure" Microsoft server packages; if the government used properly-administered Apache running on either Linux or *BSD, this entire group of purchases could be eliminated.

And training. Windows training. "Productivity applications" training. Video tapes and seminars about how to use Word and Excel and Outlook were on major display. One training class sales guy told me, "Our company started three years ago. I was employee number four. We have over two hundred people now. There is very good money in selling Windows training to the government."

(I bit my tongue and did not ask the inevitable question: "If Windows is so easy to use, why are al these training classes necessary?")

For me, cruising FOSE soon became a game. Every time I stopped at a vendor's booth to look at a commercial software product I asked myself, "How could I replace this with Open Source?" And every single time, even with my limited technical knowledge, I thought of a way to do it.

Now let's turn off the jaundiced-eye view of FOSE and look at the bright side.

The vendors at FOSE were almost uniformly hungry for attention and sales. Many of them complained to me that, as one put it, "the whole place is full of tire-kickers this year. Three, four years ago they asked for business cards and were serious about checking out what you were selling. Now it's all 'got any T-shirts or coffee cups?'"

The level of sales grabbiness, that is, of people in the booths literally reaching out and putting their hands on people walking by (especially the precious few wearing press badges) in an attempt to get them into their booths was much higher than at any other trade show I've ever attended. Even the big vendors at FOSE did not have booths that were as mobbed as at Internet World or other big "civilian" shows.

One Unisys employee (name withheld by request) told me, point-blank, "The people who come to this show aren't the CIOs and IT heads who have purchasing authority. This is a low-level crowd, hardly worth meeting. That's why IBM and Sun and the other major players stayed away, and why you don't see any Linux or Unix here. Those people are too smart to waste their time with this. There's lots of interest in Linux in government, it's just not visible at FOSE."

This gentleman, who said he used Linux at home (as did several other Unisys employees I met) told me Unisys would probably be sold soon. "I hope to IBM," he said. "That way maybe I could go to work on Linux development, which I would really like."

Dave Norton of Mission Critical Linux, on the other hand, seemed quite satisfied with the show. "We're seeing a fair amount of interest in Linux," he said. Dave reminded me that, despite the impression FOSE might give, "there is a fair amount of traction for high-performance computing" in the science-oriented agencies. And at the little NoVaLUG booth next door, at any given moment between five and 40 show attendees were standing around, looking at Linux on the six laptops displayed, asking questions, and generally displaying a level of interest that commercial FOSE exhibitors with booths of similar size were pulling at sleeves, trying in vain to get.

I have been spending less of my time at Linux shows and gatherings this year, and more of it at "mainstream" computer shows and conferences. Almost all of them I've been to have had hundreds or thousands of vendors frantically pushing Windows-oriented products and a comparatively small Linux presence, often in the form of a local vendor or LUG with, typically, one of the humblest displays in the room. And almost invariably, that crude little booth has excitement and energy to it, and has people (including employees of the Windows product vendors) coming over and saying things like, "I use Linux myself and it's really nice to see you here, spreading the faith. I keep telling my bosses we ought to get into Linux ..."

This is the true long-term strength of Linux; that at its heart it is not "marketed" but is evangelized. And this spirit is why Linux will keep spreading, with or without help from IBM, Red Hat, VA Linux [usual disclaimer: VA owns NewsForge] or any other company in the business of "selling" Linux in the commercial sense.

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