January 10, 2006

Why Microsoft is trying to debunk legacy Linux

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Stories about Microsoft's latest study are beginning to crop up here and there. This time, Redmond is trying to convince us that Linux isn't really any better on older hardware.

According to the eWeek story, Microsoft conducted the highly complex study of "putting a CD-ROM in and installing" Linux and installing it on "legacy" systems. It's interesting to note that even Microsoft concedes that Linux runs on older hardware -- if you check the graph on the eWeek story, you'll note that Slackware and Knoppix are listed as OK for the "average" PC from 1997, whereas Windows XP requires a PC from about 1999, and Windows Server 2003 requires an average PC from 2001.

What Microsoft left out

The eWeek piece lists the versions of Linux tested: Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SUSE Pro 9.2, Mandrake 10, Linspire 4.5, Xandros Desktop 3.0, Fedora Core 3, Slackware 10.1, and Knoppix 3.7.

Notice anything missing from that list, such as any distributions specifically tailored for lightweight systems? Also conspicuously absent is any mention of the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP), which would be ideal for libraries and other organizations that are short on cash for new hardware and software licenses.

A quick glance shows that, out of the box, every distro Microsoft tested uses GNOME or KDE by default. While I don't want to knock either desktop, they're certainly not what I would recommend anyone deploy on low-end hardware. I'd be curious to see how Windows XP would fare against a desktop using Xfce or Blackbox.

The point that a lightweight Linux configuration may require more time and expertise than simply whipping a CD-ROM into a drive is well-taken -- though it doesn't take deep technical knowledge to Google for "lightweight Linux desktop." Cash-rich organizations can afford to throw hardware and software licenses at problems, but if you happen to have more time or manpower than money, it's more sensible to learn how to do something with your existing resources rather than to try to scrounge up cash for new hardware and a Microsoft Windows license.

The problem with studies

The problem with this sort of study, as most people already know, is that you can set up a study to prove just about any point you want to, even if it's not really true -- or only true under limited conditions. I could conduct a study among my close friends and family to "prove" that I'm the best looking guy in North America -- that doesn't make it so.

It's been said before, and I'll say it again -- customers should look on any vendor-sponsored study with deep suspicion. Even better, customers should ask Microsoft sales reps why the company is spending its money on propaganda rather than putting those resources into improving products and security. Customers can decide for themselves whether a product is suitable, or at least look to impartial third parties for information.

Microsoft's a big company, with plenty of money to spread around, so it's not as if it needs to conserve funds. Still, I can suggest a few ways that Microsoft might better use its money. Instead of funding labs to bolster the image of Microsoft Windows vs. Linux, Microsoft might try spending money on proactive security auditing. Perhaps the whole Windows Meta File (WMF) problem could have been avoided if Microsoft focused a bit more on its own software, and a little less on trying to polish its image.

Microsoft's motives

Why is Microsoft trying to challenge the idea that Linux is better for "legacy" hardware? We already know that Microsoft's biggest competitor on older hardware is Microsoft itself. The company has a heck of a time getting its customers to spend money on new hardware and new licenses when it trots out new versions of Windows, when they can keep running older versions of Windows that are working well enough.

Microsoft is priming the pump for Windows Vista. We're already hearing that, to use Vista to its full capacity, you're going to need some hefty hardware. The estimates are at least 512MB of RAM and "a modern CPU." Specifics of what makes a CPU "modern" are sketchy at best, but I think we can safely assume that anything older than a Pentium II is probably not going to make the cut, since (by Microsoft's admission) even Windows Server 2003 requires a Pentium III.

I would guess that Microsoft's goal here is to plant the idea that Linux isn't very good on older hardware so that it takes root before Vista is launched. Xandros Desktop may or may not run circles around Windows XP on older hardware, but I'd be willing to bet that Xandros Desktop or Fedora Core 5 (which will be out by the time Vista ships) will run much better on current hardware than Vista.

But don't take my word for it. Most Linux distros are free to download. Grab Ubuntu, Fedora Core, or your distro of choice and give it a spin on the hardware you'd like to use. "Try before you buy" isn't an option you have (legitimately, anyway) with Windows.

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