April 4, 2002

Microsoft and Unisys are way, way out

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
No, it wasn't an April Fool's joke. Microsoft and Unisys really did plan a multi-million dollar ad campaign to tell the world about the evils of Unix and tout the wonders of Unisys servers running Windows. And they really did put up a Web site called We Have the Way Out that immediately became a laughingstock. The site is working again, but it was down for several days after it switched from running on FreeBSD to a Windows server.The premise of the ad campaign is that Unix is inflexible, mysterious, and takes high-priced specialists to administer, so instead of buying top-end Sun, IBM or Hewlett-Packard servers, you should buy top-end Unisys servers that run Windows.

Windows is so easy to administer that kids in Pakistan can pass MCSE exams. Even adult Americans can become certified Microsoft Systems Administrators in just 14 days. Given this ease of use, it's obvious that sane corporate managers would prefer to run their servers on Windows instead of Unix, right?

Except, of course, for the managers who put up the We Have the Way Out Web site, which ran Apache on BSD when it first went up, a fine bit of irony that didn't escape Slashdot readers' notice. On April 2, the site moved to another server, one running Windows and Microsoft IIS. And that's when the fun began.

The new "Way Out" Windows servers apparently had a whole slew of ports open, and since the site had gotten plenty of publicity, a whole slew of script kiddies dove into them and had a high old time for a few hours -- until the site got taken down. It's back up now, three days later. But it was down from Tuesday through Thursday. This is not exactly a great ad for Windows reliability. But worse, it's a message about unskilled systems administrators that applies to any server, on any operating system.

Being a systems administrator in today's world of hackers and crackers and loonies and spammers and virus-writers and root kits and open relays and Glub knows what else takes skill, knowledge, and vigilance. Those who are truly good at this work study constantly to keep up with the latest exploits and the latest defenses against them. You could argue -- and many of my sysadmin friends do -- that it takes more skill, more knowledge, and more study to deal with servers running Windows than with servers running almost any other operating system. Managers trying to find a "Way Out" of hiring skilled (and therefore pricey) systems administrators by switching from Unix to Windows are doing nothing but painting themselves into a corner: Unless they want to achieve total security the way the people running the Microsoft/Unisys "Way Out" site did -- by disconnecting all servers from the rest of the world -- even the world's cost-savingest IT managers eventually have to pay high-level sysadmin salaries to have a secure systems.

This shoots down most of Microsoft's sales message in the server arena.

Enter Linux

This is also where Linux comes onstage, with three spotlights focused on it and the audience (of cost-conscious IT managers) on their feet, clapping their hands over their heads, and swaying in time with the music.

After the "Way Out" debacle, smart IT managers and CIOs are going to be saying, "Gee, if Microsoft and Unisys put together can't secure a Windows Web server, it's obviously time for us to look for an alternative to Windows, maybe something that doesn't have high license costs -- they're eating us up these days -- and can run on these Intel boxes we already have."

CIO Magazine recently ran a feature titled How to Run a Microsoft-Free Shop. The article is in the form of a 12-step program similar to those used to wean alcoholics from booze and druggies from their favorite highs. This is an excellent primer on corporate Linux advocacy from within.

Another excellent site for advice on moving from Windows to Linux, BSD or proprietary Unix is called We Have the Way In. Some might look at this one as a parody of the Microsoft/Unisys "Way Out" site, but it's a real, useful site that can help you learn about Linux and Unix alternatives to Microsoft's server-level products.

(Okay, maybe We Have the Way In won't teach you anything, but it's a great piece of ammunition for your advocacy arsenal, especially since it is a slick, professional-looking "marketing feel" Web site that upper management will take seriously.)

Will Microsoft and Unisys continue their campaign?

So far, all that Microsoft and Unisys have managed to do with their "Way Out" campaign is make people sneer at them. But I suspect that they will keep the site going and run all the ads they planned -- many millions of dollars worth -- out of sheer pigheadedness. Plus, they might have a (probably correct) belief that although their "Way Out" site has made them into laughingstocks in the leading-edge tech community, most people out there -- including most IT managers -- don't know about their "Way Out" debacle and will be receptive to their "Windows is gooder than Unix, yuh, yuh, yuh" message, and that if they pound that message in often enough via enough different media they are bound to pick up some sales.

Meanwhile, smart IT managers and CIOs -- the ones who read technical documentation instead of marketing brochures -- will keep switching to Linux and other Open Source alternatives, happy that they have found a "Way Out" of proprietary server operating system licensing fees and security problems.

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