January 22, 2003

LinuxWorld diary: Day one - updated with Golden Penguins and a talk with Dell execs

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -

I'm posting this LinuxWorld missive a little after 2 p.m., and I'll add to the post later today and tonight. Since most specific product announcements are being covered by others or have companion press releases we're running verbatim, please check our NewsVac section for that kind of thing. In my show diary, I will give you personal impressions of what's going on here, and if you have any specific areas you'd like me to cover tomorrow and Friday, please let me know (through comments on this story). Update posted 11:10 p.m. Wednesday. See below...

Financial Services are hot-hot

Two years ago a friend of mine thought a seminar or conference about Linux and Open Source for financial service companies -- like banks, stock brokerages, and mutual funds -- would be a good idea. It flopped. Today, at at LinuxWorld, there's a sign in front of the room where the first seminar in the "Financial Services Summit" is being held that says:

Due to overwhelming response, the LinuxWorld Financial Summits are first serve, first seated sessions

The place is full of managers and IT types from banks and brokerage houses, and IT consultants that cater to this industry. Part of this is no doubt the New York location -- the Jacob Javits Convention Center is only a 15 or 30 minute cab ride (depending on traffic) from Wall Street.

But you didn't see this crowd at previous New York LinuxWorlds. NewsForge readers have noticed articles about brokerage houses and banks adopting Linux. Well, just a few minutes ago a reporter from a New York daily newspaper was sitting at a computer next to the one I'm using in the show press room. I wasn't trying to be nosy, just stretching my back and neck a little, and I happened to notice that he was typing notes about Linux and Wall Street.

It looks like Linux is going to be be coming to a bank or brokerage near you Real Soon Now -- if it's not there already.

Why do I see so many "Start" buttons?

For some reason an awful lot of hardware vendors that push Linux on servers seem to feel it's just fine to have lots of Windows screens on the computers they use in their booths to run slide shows or demonstrate their products. Personally, I have always thought this was silly. I actually asked a booth person for a company I will not name, "Does this mean you show Linux desktops at Windows-oriented shows?"

The answer this person gave: "Well, our software runs on all platforms -- Linux, Windows, AIX, Solaris... I'm a sales guy, not an engineer, so I don't know how to run Linux and I stick to Windows 'cause that's what I know."

At least HP had a laptop in their booth running Linux. Yes, folks, this is the first time I have seen a laptop in an HP booth with Linux on it -- or at least mostly on it; the person who brought it said its sound didn't work (with Red Hat 8.0, and he didn't care because he was only using it to demonstrate printers.)

All other laptops visible in the HP booth ran Windows. Desktops and server terminals were a mixed bag, with a majority of them running Linux.

We'll give IBM good marks here: they had more Linux visible on laptops and desktops than any other major hardware vendor I saw at the show.

Not only that, an IBM employee I know personally gave me quite a rant about how I (and other journalists) ought to badger the people in Microsoft's booth unmercifully. "They're only here to tear down Linux," my IBM buddy said. "They hate Linux. They want to ruin us all. They don't belong here."

Update @ 11:10 p.m. US EST

I walked around the show floor a bit, then went to an interview appointment with several Dell execs, then out to supper with some friends. Now I'm back in my hotel room, typing this...

Talking with Dell about Linux

My first real question boiled down to, "When will I be able to buy a reasonably-priced Dell laptop with Linux on it?"

Brent Schroeder, Dell's director of engineering and Linux strategy, said the company had already tried to sell laptops pre-loaded with Linux, and that they had sold poorly. I pointed out that they were high-priced laptops with many mandatory options, including a built-in three year service contract, rather than the low-cost units Linux users were likely to buy.

His second answer was that Dell's big problem with selling Linux laptops -- and desktops -- was that whichever distribution they chose, it seemed most customers wanted another one; that if they settled on Red Hat, they'd get calls for SuSE, you might say, and if they chose SuSE, they'd get screams about not offering Debian, and so on. All this more or less boiled down to Linux users not being able to make up their minds and all demand one distribution and set of software packages. When that happens, sure, Dell will talk about Linux, okay? If, that is, they see enough demand to make it worth their while.

Carol Gittinger, a Dell corporate marketing person, said she monitors online forums, including Slashdot "and responses on the news sites" to gauge the depth of Linux demand fo laptops and desktops from corporate customers. She allowed that she saw some demand, and was aware that many customers bought Dell computers and immediately installed Linux on them, but echoed Schroeder's comments about how it is impossible to please all Linux users all of the time, so Dell was not likely to start selling user-level Linux computers until there was more Linux standardization.

I suggested that Dell needn't support a dozen different Linux distributions, just make sure drivers were available, so perhaps they should just sell Linux-compatible hardware, if only so the sysadmins taking care of the Linux servers Dell is hot to sell could use Linux-loaded Dell products to administer them.

"Servers" is the big word for Dell at LinuxWorld, and they were happy to get the conversation back into an area they wanted to push instead of answering questions about laptops. So they spieled me about how Dell servers, running Linux, offer a superior value proposition. The words "focus" and "execute" were used more than once. They also used the phrase "proof points" -- a new one for me -- to describe what they thought conservative, mainstream companies wanted to see before they started going heavily with Linux, and they told me Dell considers 2003 the year Linux will become really and truly mainstream, now that early adopters have tested it and made sure it works in corporate mission-critical applications and have provided... here it comes... proof points that less adventurous managers can use as guidance when they consider Linux.

Since HP, IBM, and others also offer Linux servers and support for them, I kept asking the Dell people why theirs were better. They kept talking about their "value proposition," and mentioned that they offered a one-stop shop for hardware and software, direct from Dell, without going through distributors, anywhere in the world. I asked why an enterprise-level customer would want Linux support from Dell when IBM, HP, and Red Hat -- among others -- offer comprehensive Linux support and have well-known kernel hackers and other experts on their payrolls. The Dell answer was that Dell partners with -- among others -- Red Hat and Oracle to provide support, so theirs is as good as any, possibly better than most.

We kept coming back to the "value" discussion and talk of "meeting mass demand." I asked if this didn't mean, boiled down to its essence, waiting until IBM, Sun, HP, and any number of other hardware vendors established a market, then moving in and undercutting their prices. One of the two Dell PR people in the room rephrased this tactic as "broadening the market." Okay. Sounds better that way, so we'll let it stand.

Later, my friend Peter Gallagher of DevIS said he liked Dell's servers a lot and has bought a bunch of them. He said their support was the best he got from any hardware vendor. He said his people always removed Dell's preinstalled Red Hat immediately and installed Debian, so he had never gone to Dell for Linux support, only for help with hardware, so he couldn't really offer an opinion about their Linux tech support, just hardware stuff, where -- he noted again -- he considered them top-notch.

Anyway, besides keeping commercial server customers like Peter happy, Dell's Schroeder said they see a huge market helping corporate customers migrate from Unix to Linux, and that Dell has plenty of expertise in this area. I asked if -- for example -- Sun, an old-line Unix shop now moving into the Linux marketplace, might not be a better choice for Unix-to-Linux migration assistance. Schroeder trotted out the "value proposition" phrase again. Okay, fine. Dell sells for less. Let's just say so. Nothing wrong with that, right?

The Golden Penguin Bowl is still a kick

This has been a perennial LinuxWorld feature, and it's still fun even at a conference where most of the attendees are business people, not the "Geeks" and "Nerds" represented by the two Bowl teams engaged in a trivia contest somewhat like the TV show "The Weakest Link" except funnier and more warm-hearted, with Slashdot and TechTV star Chris DiBona (now vp of a new and very cool online gaming venture, Damage Studios) as host.

Chris is not thin-lipped and sarcastic, but warm and funny. I say this not only because he was one of our OSDN coworkers before he left to co-found Damage Studios. He's really a funny and interesting guy, totally in his element asking questions like which port is usually used by OpenSSL, and what "CSS" stands for when talking about DVDs.

Sadly, CEO keynotes now outdraw hacker-type features like The Golden Penguin Bowl at LinuxWorld. I mean, here we are with Slashdot founder Rob Malda (another funny guy, and I don't say this just because we work together, honest) as one of the judges, and a bunch of fine, fun-loving geeks and nerds as contestants, and the auditorium was less than half-full, but was packed earlier in the day when the corporate chiefs held forth.

That's enough for tonight. It's after 11 p.m. here in New York, time to hit the sack and get ready for another active LinuxWorld day tomorrow.


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