November 3, 2006

Linux interoperability takes center stage at TechX World

Author: Nathan Willis

On Tuesday, upwards of 100 IT managers and administrators attended Penton Media's TechX World conference in Dallas -- the third of four such one-day seminars this fall. Server room strategies were the main agenda, with particular emphasis placed on interoperability in a mixed Linux and Windows environment.

The bulk of the day's agenda was filled with three 90-minute sessions in four tracks -- operating system interoperability, directory and security integration, data interoperability, and virtualization. Of these, the first two were dominated by Linux and Windows interoperability talk, and that subject arose in the fourth track as well. Only the data interoperability track -- focused on Microsoft SQL Server and Oracle integration -- stayed entirely clear of the topic.

All of the talks focused on "how to" questions addressing real-world usage scenarios, such as setting up access control for Samba file and print sharing, and installing and integrating authentication mechanisms for Linux with Microsoft Active Directory. Attendees raised similarly practical questions of their own. Far from exhibiting any skepticism toward the operating system, the crowd was comfortable with Linux's presence and interested in the nuts-and-bolts of working with it in a heterogeneous environment.

Perspectives on Linux and the marketplace

Indeed, at the morning panel discussion preceding the breakout sessions, moderator Merv Adrian of Forrester Research asked the audience for a show of hands on several questions. About 90% of the group described themselves as a "Windows primary" shop, but close to 80% said they were using Linux.

Adrian posed several prearranged questions to panelists Mark Banda of IBM, Barry Crist of Centeris, and Erick Watson of Microsoft about single sign-on and virtualization strategy, but when it came time for audience members' questions, Linux was again the focus, with attendees asking "how do you choose a distribution?" and "how should you train your staff?"

The panelists were candid in their answers and traded good-natured jokes, particularly when the subject of Microsoft's stance on Linux came up. One audience member asked when we would see Microsoft buy or roll its own Linux distro, which elicited a laugh from Watson. "Not anytime soon," he replied, though he added that when it came to software for Linux, the company is less religious. The company already makes Windows Services for Unix, he said, and when it comes to consumer applications, it always comes down to a bottom-line business decision.

Banda spoke up to address this question as well, noting that IBM has been answering it for years. IBM keeps out of the distro business, he said, so it can focus their resources on support contracts with its customers. Once you launch a distro, he explained, then every change you make becomes your responsibility to fix and maintain, and you have propelled yourself back into the problems of proprietary Unix.

Referring to Oracle's recent decision to enter the Linux distro market, Banda said, "Larry [Ellison] made that choice this week, and it's going to be bad for them. I can tell you that it's in no way a good business decision. It's completely motivated by an emotional reaction to try and hurt Red Hat."

Later the audience asked about Linux's future. Banda reiterated IBM's commitment to Linux in the data center, but noted that that does not mean Linux will gain ground on the desktop. Migrating in the server room is one thing, he said, "but once you start messing around with someone's desktop environment, they get real religious about it real fast."

Watson, in turn, said that Microsoft currently sees Linux filling minor roles such as file and DNS service, but not making headway in business-critical areas. But during the breaks between sessions I spoke individually to almost all of the vendors at the partner pavilion, including representatives from Centeris and Quest, both of whom make Linux server administration tools for Windows, and they painted a different picture. When I asked where they were seeing Linux deployed by their customers, every one of them gave the same answer: databases.

Regardless of who is right, it was clear from the attendees I spoke to that Linux is an accepted presence in the server room and the IT budget. I would hazard a guess that "Active Directory" was the most oft-repeated two-word phrase over the course of the day. I would draw the conclusion, then, that attendees are no longer concerned with how to get Linux to perform its job, but instead the key question is one of streamlining the task of running Linux and Windows servers in the same organization.

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