Looking at my email and talking to people I meet at various industry association meetings, I am seeing a shift in the kind of people who are switching to Linux. And the latest round of "converts" I see are not dumber or less computer-savvy than "old-line" Linux people. If anything, they're more experienced than the talented students and hackers who made up the bulk of early Linux adopters.
Any article about marketing or advocating Linux to "the mainstream" draws a set of fairly predictable responses from those who want Linux to stay geeky instead of getting "dumbed down" for "Joe and Jane Sixpack." But I am not seeing any huge increase in the number of help inquiries coming into email@example.com from people with AOL email addresses asking if they can run their Windows genealogy programs and games on Linux. We still get those, and always will. But we are seeing a veritable explosion in the number of information requests from IT professionals who are seriously investigating Linux for the first time.
Here's an example of the "new wave" of inquiries we're seeing:
I am the IT administrator for a medium-sized school district, and we're talking about switching some or all of our servers to Linux. We are currently using a mix of Sun Solaris and Microsoft, especially Exchange and Outlook for email. Do you have any migration guides that can help us make a smooth transition to Linux? Is there any way we can continue using Exchange on Linux or can you reccomend a Linux equivalant? We are making this move because our IT budget has been cut and proprietary software license fees are going up. We are excited about Linux and need to learn more about it."
An excerpt from another one:
My name is [removed] and I recently visited a web page discussing the benefits of Linux Operating Systems and in particular the ability to reduce on purchasing software licensing. I currently work for the [removed] law firm based out of [removed] and we are rebuilding our entire network down to the cabling. If you could send me any info on Linux systems and their ability to support databases and possibly up to 2500 users. Thank you.
These are sophisticated computer professionals, not home users. They are, no doubt, highly competent with Windows NT/2000 and/or Unix, but when it comes to Linux, they are "new users" who don't know much. They are entirely capable of reading manuals and learning; they have already learned how to deal with complex networking issues or they wouldn't have their jobs. But before they start learning Linux, they need to know what they can (and can't) do with it, what kind of work they're looking at if and when they start deploying Linux, and what kind of problems they are likely to encounter.
We can't say, "Go download a copy of [favorite distribution] and if you have any problems, look for help on IRC," to someone who is talking about using Linux on a significant network that is critical to a company's or government agency's operation. They need more and better information than that. And never forget, if the Linux migration doesn't work out, the person within the organization who pushed for Linux is probably going to lose his or her job, which raises the stakes (for that person) even higher.
I guess what I'm asking here is, "Hey, seen any good white papers lately?" Most of the "newbie-oriented" Linux tutorials and HOWTOs I've seen were written for home users or students, not for professional network administrators or IT managers. And where should that Windows-experienced admin thinking about at least experimenting with Linux turn for help? I have no problem advising them to turn to local Linux User Groups, because every sizable LUG I have had any contact with had a "hard core" of professional, very knowledgeable IT people in it -- often including consultants eager to help with corporate Linux migrations professionally, for a fee. But where else should we point new or potential enterprise-level Linux users?
Companies like IBM or Red Hat and almost any other Linux distribution publisher will happily supply all the enterprise-level Linux support anyone could want if the money's right. Are they the best places for corporate IT managers to go for Linux advice? What about training current employees? Is it better to send people already working in the organization off for Linux training, and rely on their newly-acquired Linux knowledge instead of turning to outsiders? What formal Linux training programs are best? Or is it better to just buy books, set up a couple of test systems, and rely on self-teaching?
Then we come to the problem of choosing enterprise-level hardware and software. NewsForge and other publications that cover tech matters can easily have a staff member or freelancer test and review a standalone computer or a single-user program, but how are we going to test a server that's supposed to be able run 800 thin clients? We don't have 800 thin clients in daily use that we can suddenly change over to a new, untried system in order to write a review of it. Neither do most school districts, law firms, manufacturers or retailers, and that's a major problem they have not only with switching to Linux but with switching to anything new to them.
Managers responsible for corporate or government IT systems are going to be conservative about major decisions. They should experiment with Linux (or anything else they haven't tried yet) a little at a time, and gradually increase its use as they gain experience with it -- assuming it works better for them (or costs less) than what they were using before.
But that still leaves us -- the people who already use Linux -- with the question of how we can best help new enterprise-level Linux users have satisfactory initial experiences with Linux.