November 4, 2004

IT analysts' influence on open source adoption

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

I have now attended conferences held by two major IT analyst firms: Forrester and Gartner. While I have talked to (and quoted) many analysts over the years, these were the first times I watched them interact with their clients in person. Like it or not, these firms and their competitors are major influences on enterprise IT adoption.One of the most telling moments for me at the recent Gartner conference in Orlando was when, walking the exhibit floor with local IT consultant (and NewsForge freelancer) Rob Reilly, the marketing v.p. of a small software company told us that he exhibited at Gartner conferences because that got his company "on Gartner's grid." To him, getting noticed by Gartner was more important than the direct contacts he made at the conference. This attention, not the booth space itself, was what he was buying. And he told us that this strategy was a complete success: That his company's sales had picked up "tremendously" since he had started paying exhibition fees to Gartner.

Novell exhibited at that show, too, and held a number of small "vendor seminars" to acquaint Gartner clients with the company's latest offerings, with Linux front and center among them.

Gartner now has analysts watching Linux and open source full-time. So do other analyst firms. I have not heard "free software" mentioned separately at either of the two analysts' conferences I have attended, although the GPL gets its share of discussion (and not necessarily in negative terms).

Worries about software liability

"Will my company get sued if I use Linux?" is a question that seems to pop up often at the analyst conferences. A corporate IT manager or CIO who knowingly uses software that lands his or her company in court will probably not be employed for long, so this is a valid concern. Gartner's official position seems to be that clients should be careful to get Linux from "trusted sources" -- presumably Red Hat, SUSE, and other commercial vendors -- not via downloads from unknown mirrors. Gartner also stresses management control over what open source packages a company uses rather than letting sysadmins and other employees install whatever they want, especially on servers.

But Gartner and other analysts aren't saying, "Don't use Linux! Avoid open source!" Most of them seem to accept open source as inevitable and are simply urging a cautious adoption pattern.

New implementations rather than migrations

One note I found especially interesting came from Gartner v.p. Mark Driver, who mentioned in one session, almost as an aside, that the best place for a company to first deploy Linux in a large way would be in a new-from-scratch operation rather than as a replacement for Windows on an existing network. Since Gartner's (and other analysts') figures show that migration from another operating system and porting software written for the old operating system are the two largest costs of a Linux migration, it is obvious -- at least to Driver -- that Linux TCO drops radically when you avoid the migration step and install Linux in the first place.

When Driver made that statement, in a room with about 300 people in it, I watched pens hit paper.

This thought may explain why Linux is being adopted more rapidly in parts of the world that are just now building their IT infrastructures than in places where Windows is already established as the dominant desktop computing force.

When analysts talk, top-level managers listen

Walking around the Gartner conference, Rob Reilly and I were surrounded by upper-level IT people from industry and government. This was not a conference that catered to software developers or sysadmins. It was where their bosses came to get recommendations -- and since Gartner subscriptions, consulting fees, and conference attendance is pricey, one presumes that those managers implement a lot of what they learn from Gartner.

Another factor is that many analyst clients hedge their bets by subscribing to more than one firm's reports and attending multiple conferences. For example, IDC v.p. Dan Kusnetsky drove to Orlando from his home near Sarasota, Florida, to meet several of his clients who were attending the Gartner conference. "It was a convenient place for us to meet," he said.

Naturally, Dan didn't attend the conference itself. He met Gartner/IDC dual-subscription clients in nearby restaurants. But he was there, as were other analysts and consultants who compete with Gartner -- and share clients with them.

Dan's clients wanted to meet with him one-on-one, just as they were meeting one-on-one with Gartner analysts. "Meet your analyst" is a major feature of all analyst firm's conferences. The dividing line between "analyst" and "consultant" is thin. The chance to get customized advice from your favorite analyst blurs it even more. And say what you will about consultants, at the executive level a decision made with input from analysts and consultants is safer, careerwise, than one you make on your own.

Open source is now mainstream in analyst-land

Forrester, IDC, Gartner, and most other major analyst firms all now treat Linux and other popular open source offerings as a "Where and when to adopt it" topic rather than as a "Should you use it?" controversy. Even META Group, which has a reputation in open source circles as being pro-Microsoft, often turns out studies that talk about Linux in "How to" rather than "Should you?" terms.

In marketingspeak, we might put it this way: "The concept of cooperative software development under licenses that allow redistribution and modification has gained enough traction that this meme is now part of the enterprise IT landscape."

This means job opportunities for Linux-aware sysadmins and other IT personnel are likely to increase, which is good. It also means that more developers will be working with more open source projects, which is likely to accelerate the rate of open source adoption even more.

And as a free side effect, there will probably be an expanding market for analysts familiar with Linux, too. Rob Reilly pointed out, over and over, that he and I often do exactly the same kind of research as the analysts, and that by packaging our work the way they package theirs instead of running it as articles on ad-supported Web sites, we could compete with them directly.

It's a seductive thought. But is the IT world ready for an analyst firm that specializes in open and free software research? Is there enough of a (paying) market for information about free and open source software to make this a viable business idea?

Perhaps. And if someone decides to try it, I hope they invite me to their first conference. I think I'd enjoy being there.

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