One of the world's largest IT companies is declaring that the Linux desktop will capture 20% of the market for desktop computers in large enterprises within 5 years.
Siemens Business Systems, the $6 billion global IT consulting and outsourcing company, has conducted extensive testing with real-world, non-technical workers and is declaring that Linux has matured as a desktop and will quickly vault to the #2 most-installed OS in the world.
Senior program manager Duncan McNutt, who has overseen Siemens's testing of Linux desktops with users and administrators in enterprise settings, believes that Linux will grow quickly as a desktop OS because it can deliver equal productivity at significantly lower costs than Windows in very large enterprise environments -- installations of 4,000 to 40,000 desktops.
McNutt says that when Siemens, with 33,000 employees in 44 countries, initially evaluated Linux as a productivity desktop, it saw little utility outside of technical departments. "We didn't see Linux on the desktop as a major market, but we were wrong."
However, McNutt, interviewed by phone from Frankfurt, says Siemens has been prodded to investigate the viability of Linux on the desktop by customers who are both impressed by the success of Linux servers and annoyed by Microsoft's pricing and licensing policies.
The stakes are high, says McNutt: even a single day of productivity lost to technology issues like version upgrades, multiplied by 10,000 or more workers, quickly shows up on enterprise customers' balance sheets, and that's very bad news for the CIO. So, while lower IT costs are "very important" to large customers, maintaining productivity is even more critical.
That's why testing was conducted with "secretaries and managers, not IT people." McNutt believes that the Ximian desktop and application suite, running on either SuSE or Red Hat, requires two days of training, which is the same as what most enterprises budget for a Windows/MS Office version upgrade: one day to acquaint users with the desktop, and one day to introduce the OpenOffice suite.
McNutt went on to say that Ximian's suite -- consisting of a Gnome-based Linux desktop, Evolution mail and calendar app, a tweaked OpenOffice suite, and Red Carpet admin tools -- can be deployed in very large enterprises at lower cost and with no greater disruption than a Windows upgrade, and with significant savings going forward. McNutt says that Linux will save 20% to 30% in administration costs, 50% in hardware costs, and 80% in licensing fees.
Siemens has no "religious" attachment to a particular distro or desktop environment. Before settling on Ximian, Siemens evaluated plain vanilla Gnome and KDE as well. Siemens found KDE to be more "Windows-like" than Gnome, but that led to problems when non-technical users expected a more Windows-like experience. Gnome, particularly Ximian's version, was "different enough" to set user expectations that the experience would be less like Windows, which led to fewer adoption problems.
McNutt also believes that there is kind of virtuous cycle developing, where firms like Siemens and Novell are working with Open Source-oriented companies like Ximian (recently acquired by Novell) to swat bugs and develop features which ultimately go back to the Open Source community. That large group then improves and further debugs the corporate contributions, leading to a code base that rapidly becomes more useful, refined, and stable in corporate environments.
McNutt says that Linux reduces administration costs in large installations of 1,000 desktops and up because it is more scriptable and well-documented than Windows. "With Windows, there's always some feature that you can only get to through the GUI," he says. He also cites the better documentation in Linux that allows administrators to solve oddball problems that can be very time-consuming on Windows, where parts of the proprietary OS are undocumented. McNutt feels that Linux is particularly strong in remote management, which is becoming more important as enterprise workers become more widely dispersed.
Linux saves money on hardware because it typically requires fewer resources to start with, and also because "feature bloat" from application upgrades don't tend to result in machines that run unacceptably slowly after two years service. "If you can keep a machine running at acceptable levels of performance for three years rather than two, you've just saved 50% on hardware costs," McNutt says.
McNutt says that while Linux will save 80% over Microsoft's licensing fees, many large customers, particularly large European government offices, are even more unhappy about being in a position where Microsoft can dictate terms to them. He noted reports that even the U.S. Department of Defense and the State of Washington, Microsoft's home ground, are looking at Linux as an alternative as well.
"These government installations are huge -- often 30,000 or 40,000 desktops" says McNutt. The Europeans are miffed that Microsoft's new licensing leaves them unable to afford both upgrades and support on their current budgets, and, in any case, would much rather use their IT spending to help encourage a local tech industry rather than support a U.S. monopoly.
McNutt noted that some German city governments have already begun to install Linux desktops, and that his firm is about to roll out 7,000 Linux desktops at a "very large financial institution." If that program succeeds, McNutt expects to convert the remaining 27,000 seats to Linux as well.
He also says that large numbers of enterprises that have already delayed or skipped Windows upgrades to save money during difficult economic times are coming to a point that they will have to upgrade to maintain productivity levels. These companies will be looking closely at the experiences of the first large enterprises to embrace Linux on the desktop.