December 30, 2002

The most popular Linux article ever?

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -

You've seen a headline or two recently on NewsForge that said something like "Microsoft fights off Windows rival Linux." I say "headline or two" because we goofed up and and linked to this story at least twice, under different headlines. It was an easy mistake to make because this AP story has run in more newspapers and on more news Web sites than any other story I have ever seen with the word "Linux" in it.

We use a combination of automated scans and human eyeballs to generate our NewsVac section. We scan Google News, NewsNow and other aggregators' sites, too, to pick up anything our software tools (and our readers' many submissions, for which we thank you heartily) may have missed. And that AP story about Microsoft saying Linux is bad not because of licensing but because it costs too much has dominated our searches for Linux stories since Christmas and is still going strong.

Not all republished wire service stories are equal

Look at this Chicago Sun-Times version published Dec. 28, 2002: Microsoft now attacking Linux as expensive.

Now look at the version published by HoustonChronicle.com on Dec. 26.

Note that the chron.com version contains several paragraphs that were cut from the Sun-Times version. And from the original home of Slashdot, the Holland (MI) Sentinel's site carried the full-length story on Sunday, Dec. 29, complete with a happy-smile photo of "Peter Houston, Microsoft's senior director of server strategy."

Readers of one newspaper (or Web site) may see a substantially less complete version of AP writer Helen Jung's original story than another may see, yet all versions mention Linux over and over, and that's the main thing here.

Almost all publicity is good publicity

You can probably trace the genesis of this story back to a Microsoft-sponsored IDC report formally released in early December that supposedly proved Win2K servers cost less to operate than Linux servers in most enterprise environments.

Microsoft shotgunned press releases about this report all over the place. We got them, and so did every other medium that has ever run a tech or IT story.

Many tech and IT reporters wrote about this "study" with varying degrees of skepticism. Some journalists seem to have trouble trusting "independent research" paid for by the company whose products are being researched, even when the company in question is a world-renowned, notably successful one like Microsoft. But that's how journalists are. They tend to be a skeptical bunch, even the ones some of the more paranoid NewsForge readers think are being paid by Microsoft to write nice things about Windows (and nasty things about Linux).

If Microsoft's intention in paying for the IDC report and then publicizing it widely was to draw attention to the report's content, this was an outstandingly successful piece of PR maneuvering. But if Microsoft's intention was to make Windows look good and Linux look bad, this campaign could be considered a huge failure, not only because it has caused many stories to be written that, like Ms. Jung's, are far more evenhanded than Microsoft's PR people probably had in mind, but because this campaign has put a spotlight on Linux in many media where it probably would not have been mentioned otherwise.

The downside of 'going negative'

American political campaigns all too often sink into a wallow of stupid "Vote for me because my opponent sucks" TV spots. The result, of course, is that voter turnout keeps dropping. If both major party candidates for a particular office are as bad as their esteemed opponents so often claim, it is obviously an act of bad citizenship to vote for either one. And the minor party candidates usually don't have a chance of winning, right?

The big problem with being a minor party political candidate (or partyless independent) is that it's hard to get noticed. Reporters don't come to your press conferences. You don't get invited to candidate forums or debates. And you usually don't have nearly as much campaign funding as the Big Guys, so it's hard for you to compete with them head-to-head on the paid advertising side.

Now imagine being a small party candidate who suddenly comes under attack by both the Republican and Democratic candidates for doing something unAmerican like (possibly a bad example, but sadly true these days) advocating a better life for ordinary people, not just for ultra-rich people, big corporations, union honchos, and industry associations that donate megabucks to political parties.

Suddenly your little, underfunded campaign would start getting attention. The more bad things Rep. Specialinterest and Mayor Wealthlover said about you, the more reporters would call you for reactions. Why, you could probably hold a press conference to refute the charges that you were so unAmerican that you thought taxpayers should get fair value for their money, and have reporters from every local TV station show up!

And before long, you would have plenty of that most-sought and highest-valued political commodity: Name recognition.

Who knows? You might even win the election.

Talking down to smart people is dumb

Most people in corporate management -- particularly IT management -- are not idiots. In fact, all the moron and PHB jokes aside, almost all of them have plenty of brainpower, even if they don't apply that brainpower to specific tasks like coding or Web site design.

It is a mistake to assume that anyone in the position to choose operating systems or application software for a large company is going to be swayed by nonsense or FUD, no matter who puts it out. "Linux r0XeRs, WinDoze $uX0rZ!!!" is no better reason to run Linux than "GPL software spreads like cancer" is a valid reason to choose Windows. In the end, at the corporate level, software is a tool, and tool choices are generally made on the basis of their fitness for a particular purpose in a given situation.

For example, a medium-sized company that depends on a whole series of Visual Basic programs to operate, and has an IT department full of people who know Windows and Microsoft products top to bottom but only has one or two Linux users on staff, is unlikely to suddenly decide to switch everything to Linux even if Linux is demonstrably superior and less costly. That conversion would be so expensive that any potential savings in licensing or reliability gains could not possibly pay off for many years, and the short-term disruption a sudden switch would cause could quite literally kill the company if anything went wrong with it.

(A slow, measured, very gradual conversion might work, however, and this is the Linux migration pattern we most commonly see in the corporate IT world.)

Telling that medium-sized company's IT manager he or she will automatically save money by moving to Linux is not a good idea. It is, quite simply, not likely to be a true statement. Conversely, proprietary operating system or applications software vendors who tell that IT manager their products are so much easier to install and maintain, and so much more secure, than FOSS alternatives that they should be the only ones considered are just as guilty of assuming the people they are pitching are ignorant as Linux and Open Source advocates who fail to back their assertions with hard facts.


The MITRE 'FOSS at DoD' study

Use of Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) in the U.S. Department of Defense is the government-turgid title of one of the most comprehensive comparisons ever done between Free/Open Source and proprietary software costs and capabilities in a large organization.

Here are two key paragraphs from this report:

The main conclusion of the analysis was that FOSS software plays a more critical role in the DoD than has generally been recognized. FOSS applications are most important in four broad areas: Infrastructure Support , Software Development , Security , and Research . One unexpected result was the degree to which Security depends on FOSS. Banning FOSS would remove certain types of infrastructure components (e.g., OpenBSD ) that currently help support network security. It would also limit DoD access to and overall expertise in the use of powerful FOSS analysis and detection applications that hostile groups could use to help stage cyberattacks. Finally, it would remove the demonstrated ability of FOSS applications to be updated rapidly in response to new types of cyberattack . Taken together, these factors imply that banning FOSS would have immediate, broad, and strongly negative impacts on the ability of many sensitive and security-focused DoD groups to defend against cyberattacks.

For Infrastructure Support, the strong historical link between FOSS and the advent of the Internet means that removing FOSS applications would result in a strongly negative impact on the ability of the DoD to support web and Internet-based applications. Software Development would be hit especially hard for languages such as Perl that are direct outgrowths of the Internet, and would also suffer serious setbacks for development in traditional languages such as C and Ada. Finally, Research would be impacted by a large to very large increase in support costs, and by loss of the unique ability of FOSS to support sharing of research results in the form of executable software.

This report was prepared for and paid for by the U.S. Department of Defense to help guide DoD software acquisition, which means it is more likely to be honest and unbiased than a similar report sponsored by Microsoft -- or Red Hat or UnitedLinux or Apple or Sun or IBM or any other company that makes money selling computer software or hardware to the DoD.

Note that this report does not say, "The entire Department of Defense ought to convert to Linux and *BSD next week." Rather, it says there is a strong place for FOSS in the DoD, and also a strong place for COTS (as "Commercial Off-The-Shelf Software" is known in DoD acronym-speak).


The MITRE report as an advocacy tool

By now, a large number of people -- many millions -- have read various versions of the AP story about Microsoft's claim that Windows is a less expensive server OS than Linux. Some of these people, including many in a position to make major IT acquisition decisions, are going to have questions about Linux. They may have heard of Linux before and dismissed it as a hobbyists' or students' operating system, but now they are seeing it compared with Windows on more-or-less equal terms, being taken seriously as a competitive threat by Microsoft itself. This recognition by Microsoft is as good for Linux advocates as a minor party candidate being treated as serious competition by major party candidates. The next step is to make the most of this outstanding opportunity.

This is where that MITRE report comes in. It's thick, it's dense, it's turgid, and because of all this it is unquestionably authoritative. And it contains an important paragraph that lays to rest one of the biggest pieces of anti-FOSS FUD spread by some proprietary software vendors:

A common assumption about FOSS licenses such as GPL is that their transitive user rights means they cannot be used with non-FOSS (e.g., government or proprietary) software. However, this is generally not the case; such mixing can generally be done in various ways. For example, even GPL with its strong protection of transitive user rights provides a number of mechanisms to allow such mixing (Figure 1). Microsoft provides a good example of an innovative use of one such mixing strategy in their Windows Services for Unix (SFU) product. This product uses proprietary software to build an initial bridge between Windows and UNIX operating systems, and then adds in GPL tools and utilities to extend greatly its overall emulation of UNIX. Users benefit from the extended functionality provided by the GPL components, while Microsoft benefits by avoiding the cost and time of re-developing the tools as proprietary software.

Unfortunately, no one is sending copies of the MITRE report to every news organization in the world; it is a fact of life that reports sponsored by companies that have powerful PR agencies on retainer are likely to get more press play than ones prepared honestly for or by actual software users, even huge ones like the U.S. DoD.

This is where you come in.

"You" may be a sysadmin working for a company that is looking for ways to get more bang for its IT buck, and you would like your bosses to seriously consider Linux as part of that strategy.

"You" may be an independent consultant bidding for a contract using Linux and Open Source (and possibly some proprietary packages, too) going up against competition that uses nothing but proprietary software, and you need a little ammunition to overcome anti-FOSS statements your competitors have made to potential clients.

"You" may be a student or faculty member working to make sure your school offers a well-rounded computer curriculum, not one based solely on one proprietary vendor's products.

But whoever "you" are, from now on you are likely to be speaking to bosses, coworkers or school administrators who have at least heard of Linux, and may even have questions they might not have asked last year before simply dismissing Linux as not worth investigating.

And now, in the MITRE report, you have a great advocacy tool to turn to -- in addition to others NewsForge readers are sure to post below, not to mention the (literally) thousands of pages that turn up in a Google search for "Linux advocacy."

So happy advocacy in 2003. This is my last article of 2002. We'll have lots of new, neat stuff for you next year in NewsForge. Please stick around and enjoy!

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