The doors are still open

West Vancouver-based Imaginative Computer Solutions has been selling non-Windows operating systems since it was founded in 1994.

According to vice-president Daniel Sacks, its portfolio includes several distributions of Linux, as well as BSD Unix and Novell’s Open Enterprise Server (OES), a combination of SuSE Linux Enterprise Server and Novell NetWare.

But, he added, “we are a huge Microsoft shop. The majority of servers run Windows — there’s no question of demand for Microsoft.”

Proof of that is in sales of new hardware, where according to IDC last year for the first time more servers sold with Windows (US$17.7 billion) than with Unix (US$17.5 billion.)

But VARs should remember that other operating systems aren’t going away.

Even as IT buyers increasingly open their doors to Windows for running business applications, they’re welcoming other operating systems across the threshold.

Last year worldwide sales of new servers bundled with Linux hit US$5.3 billion according to IDC, edging out IBM’s z/OS for the third place.

In Canada, Linux server shipments have moved up to second with 21.2 per cent of the market, ahead of Unix boxes with 10.3 percent, although massively behind Windows’ 63.4 share.

But there’s evidence of demand for server operating systems other than Windows, even those with market shares that barely register.

Steve Shaw, Hewlett-Packard’s business development manager for its Business Critical Servers group said that in the last few weeks he has even had customers, primarily in financial and health care, upgrading their OpenVMS systems.

“We had anticipated a drop after moving OpenVMS to Integrity (HP’s Itanium-based servers),” he said, “but we’re seeing growth or flat sales.”

According to IDC’s Canadian figures, that may just be wishful thinking — OpenVMS’s 2005 revenue was half what it was the year before — but it’s enough to encourage HP’s plans to add virtualization and utility computing capabilities to OpenVMS.

Another blip in market share belongs to the Apple Xserve line. Apple Canada’s strategic development manager, Willi Powell, positions the operating system, with its FreeBDS Unix underpinnings with the Mac OS X interface, as “open source made easy.”

“Over the last three years we have been recruiting resellers from Unix, Linux, and IRIX,” he said, “trying to work with them, and understand and try to help their business.”

Unix revenue healthy
Then there’s Unix. Although combined shipments of its various types are relatively small (around 18,000 last year), they account for a healthy chunk of revenue.

“Unix remains a significant player in the Canadian market,” said Alan Freedman, research manager for infrastructure hardware at IDC Canada, “but moves upstream with respect to applications or workloads that it runs. There is also an opportunity for consolidation initiatives on larger Unix servers.”

That is a happy statement for HP. HP-UX is a significant player in the enterprise Unix world, and it is devoting many research and development dollars to keep it there. But John Sloan, senior research analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research, thinks the company has made one major misstep.

“HP-UX is in a kind of precarious position right now because HP is phasing out PA-RISC servers and is trying to move people to Integrity (models) with Itanium (processors),” he said. “It’s causing people to pose the question, ‘Do we want to do that?’

“It’s nothing to do with the operating system itself. This decision by HP is causing customers to ask questions about the platform.”

“Compare it to Solaris,” he continued, “its latest version runs on high-end servers, but also on industry standard machines. . . IBM is more proprietary, but you can run AIX on its whole server line. I don’t think it was a good move for HP.”

Solaris, Sun Microsystems’ version of Unix, is the star on which Jack Murphy has hung his fortunes. He is president of B.C.-based Myra Systems, a technical support organization that services customers requiring highly available, large-scale server environments for both Unix and Windows. Although he supports HP-UX, AIX, and Linux as well, Solaris is the non-Windows operating system that he sells.

“Every account we support has some Unix and some Windows,” he noted. “You can’t be an integrator without doing Windows. Solaris has always been a high-end operating system, always more functional.”

It was also more expensive than most, until Sun decided to release it to open source, providing it free for non-commercial use.

“Since then,” said Murphy, “we started to see a lot more interest in Solaris. It’s more robust and easier to deal with compared to different flavours of Linux.”

“From the point of view of an analyst dealing with clients, I have gotten calls about the changes in the Unix world,” Sloan said.

“People are concerned that, because IBM is showing considerable support for Linux, it is not as committed to AIX. We also get calls about the future of HP-UX. But none of these people are talking about moving to Windows or Linux; they’re still committed to the platform. (Unix) might be a dwindling proportion (of the market), but it’s still vital for sure!”

There’s no doubt about the vitality of Linux. Number four in revenue and number two in shipments in Canada last year, it continues to grow, to the point that, said Freedman, “Linux is now a viable option for platforms, not just an ‘alternative’ operating environment.”

Yet for resellers, it’s an up and down proposition. Shawn Aghdassi, operations manager at Toronto’s Intellect Computer Source, said that the only Linux systems he’s sold this year are in turnkey telephone systems.

He thinks part of the reason is cost — not cost of the operating system, or even of the hardware, but the cost of support technicians.

“Not many people know how to work with Linux, compared to Microsoft,” he noted. “You have to pay a lot more money for a person like that.”

‘Dime a dozen’
Imaginative’s Sacks agrees. “MCSEs are a dime a dozen. Linux requires a greater skill set.” In an informal competitive analysis of resellers in his area, only twelve of 130 VARs he looked at had Linux skills.

“Everyone and their pet poodle is an MCSE,” echoed Novell Canada’s chief technology officer, Ross Chevalier.

“Linux is a growth market for professional services. There aren’t 10 million people out there with the skills, so people with the skills command good hour and day rates. And for integrators and resellers who have Unix skills, adding Linux is a walk in the park.”

Murphy, on the other hand, said he has no trouble finding technicians, but his philosophy is different. He recommends hiring computer science or engineering graduates and training them in-house.

“We need to move to ‘operating system’ people,” he insisted. “We’re now dealing with virtualized systems, and the interaction between the front and back ends. The distinction between ‘Windows people’ and ‘Solaris people’ has to disappear.” But he does agree that tacking on another operating system can be challenging.

“It’s a complex problem,” he said. “Any time you as a reseller engage in another product or line of products you have a significant investment to make to support it.”

Targets SMB
Toronto’s Net Integration Technologies offers a different approach. It says its Linux-based Nitix operating system is autonomic: self-configuring, self-managing, self-healing and self-protecting.

“It’s widely known that Linux competes well in the enterprise space, where there is the skill set, and the budget to retain the (skilled) people,” said company vice-president Greg McClement.

“Nitix targets the SMB space; Linux hasn’t taken off there. It’s still too complicated to be deployed and maintained cost-effectively. Adding autonomic technology to Linux makes it easier for a reseller to deliver Linux to a customer, even if (the reseller) hasn’t worked with Linux before. It gives resellers who want to have Linux in their arsenal a way to deploy it without being a command-line junkie.”

But the bottom line in operating system choice, all agree, is the needs of the customer.

“You need to understand the pain the customer is having and how to solve it,” said Powell. “The solution to the pain may not be another of what they’ve already got.”

“Being different is a challenge,” added Sacks. “We’re not loyal to one supplier, we’re loyal to our customer.”

In the end, however, the choice of operating system comes down to two factors: the availability of suitable applications to meet the customer’s needs, and the customer’s ability to support the environment.

If the software isn’t there, or there’s a houseful of Microsoft certified techs at the client site, anything other than Windows will be a tough sell.

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Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree

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