March 20, 2001

Linux vs. Sun vs. Microsoft at federal expo

Author: JT Smith

- by Robin Miller -

Washington, D.C. -- Today at FOSE [Federal Office Systems
Exposition], Jon "maddog" Hall of Linux International,
Douglas Miller of Microsoft, and Ann Thomas Manes of Sun
Microsystems squared off in a wide-ranging panel discussion,
and Linux came out on top. Sort of.First, you need to know that FOSE may be the only computer
trade show in the world, where hundreds of vendors vie for
attention from a single customer. This makes sense only when
you remember that the U.S. federal government is far and
away this planet's largest single buyer of computer
hardware, software, and related services. You also need to
know that, like it or not, almost all federal offices run on
Windows, while government "back room" computers run on a
mix of everything from ancient COBOL mainframes to modern
*nix installations.

The debate itself was gentle in the extreme. All three
panelists worked for Digital back in its heyday and
displayed exactly the amount of collegiality you'd expect
from old co-workers. Indeed, Doug Miller (no relation to the
author of this article) has only been Microsoft's group
manager for Windows .NET Strategy for a few months; like
maddog and Anne, he is essentially a Unixhead. And at times
he seemed to mention Linux more than maddog.

This panel was not heavily attended. Perhaps 150 people sat
in an auditorium designed to hold at least three times that
number. Moderator Tom Temin, editorial director of
Government Computer News, introduced the panelists,
who each gave a 5-minute introduction. Anne gave out the
basic Sun party line about the robustness of Sun's
industrial-strength servers. Maddog mentioned Linux's
flexibility, openness, ability to run on architectures
ranging from PDAs to mainframes, and otherwise told an
audience that seemed to consist of a high percentage of
Linux boosters that Linux was a fine operating system.

And Doug spoke of "poor Microsoft," stuck in the middle
between Sun at the high end and Linux on the low end. He
also spoke of Microsoft "introducing" failover and of how
the company is now building a server OS that is "as good" as
others. It was a rather shocking speech for a Microsoftie,
quite different from what we have grown used to, where Linux
was either dismissed by Microsoft spokespeople as a
hobbyists' toy or treated as a threat to be overcome. The
word "interoperability" passed Doug's lips many times.
"Industry standards" got praised. It was almost sad,
watching the representative of the famed Evil Empire forced
to acknowledge that Microsoft no longer expects to dominate
the world.

A cynic might say that this is because the very federal
government for which FOSE exists has chastened Microsoft for
not playing well with other on the IT playground. More
pragmatically, the new awareness may be because the flavor
of the week at Microsoft is its .NET strategy, and the
Internet and Web server marketplace this is supposed to
invade is already dominated by Unix, Linux, and Open Source
software in general, with Microsoft in the role of the brash
newcomer playing catchup with the Big Boys.

So it was a Linux lovefest; Anne from Sun even spoke of
using Linux as a server on an old 486 at home. Doug didn't
quite go that far, but was refreshingly free of the
anti-Linuxness one would expect from, say, Steve Ballmer.

Really, the closest thing to a hostile question about Linux
came from an audience member who wanted to know whether
forking caused by competing Linux distros might not screw up
Linux the way divergence messed up Unix in the business
marketplace many years ago, but maddog fielded the query
well, speaking of the newly-aroused Linux Standards Base,
how it is being supported by every major distribution
publisher, and how it exists purely to make Linux
distributions more compatible with each other, not less.

The only true sales pitch Doug managed to get off on behalf
of Microsoft's .NET was that unlike Sun's somewhat similar
strategy that relies on XML and Java, Microsoft's would
support "many languages, not just one. Java, Visual Basic,
C, C++ ...," he said.

But Anne cut him off. "Many languages, one platform," she
retorted, "or one language, many platforms. It's your
choice." The audience responded with almost as much laughter
as if David Letterman had suddenly been introduced as a
surprise guest and wowed them with a new "top 10 reasons to
love Linux" list.

It was, overall, a rather dull session. The last question
from someone who described himself as "a sysadmin," was
about 64-bit support.

Maddog: Linux has supported 64 bits for a while.

Anne: Sun has supported 64 bits for a while.

Doug: Well, I guess that leaves us....

And on that note it was time to go, and everybody left.

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