Resellers have been slow to embrace the growing demand for Linux in Australia, preferring to leverage the strengths of Microsoft and Unix markets.
Yet hunger for knowledge about Linux and how to make money from the open source movement is beginning to grow. This was evident at a recent road show hosted by leading distributor, Express Data.
Linux is easily the fastest-growing server platform in the world. It has gained significant traction in the $25,000 server market in Australia and is pre-loaded on a number of systems sold by the likes of IBM, HP and Dell.
With growth rates of more than 20 per cent a year in the server space, the Linux operating system will be found on 1.57 million computers by 2008, according to Gartner.
With that sort of speedy market adoption, there would have to be a quid in there for resellers at some point.
Several who attended the road show confessed to having never properly investigated whether a Linux-based service would generate good business. As a Novell salesperson remarked, many of them had never even seen a Linux interface.
"When they do, they are amazed to see that it actually does not look a lot different from Microsoft," she said. "The big differences are at the back-end."
On paper, the big difference is price. Linux is free if you want to run a purest view but there are fees, albeit substantially less than those of Unix systems and Microsoft, if you wish to use vendors such as Red Hat, IBM or Novell.
Novell is one of the most aggressive spruikers of Linux in the local market, having snapped up SuSE last year to strengthen its open source offering. The company now claims to be working on six pilot projects in which large Australian companies are evaluating Linux on the desktop. Should any of those drop, they will make headlines.
Motivation of IT managers for such strategies stems from three basic factors: cutting costs by switching from more expensive Unix and Microsoft operating systems; concerns about the number of Windows security issues; and belief that Linux is better technology.
These points emerged in a straw poll of 20 CIOs who were asked about their Linux strategies. The study was conducted last month and presented at the Express Data event.
Three-quarters of respondents said they were deploying Linux because of cost-savings, while 16 of the 20 thought it was a better technology.
One CIO said: "I have grave reservations about Microsoft's security performance. Linux seems a much safer option. It is more robust and doesn't come with the hassle of Windows."
Microsoft hotly disputes such claims. Clarity on what is safest is not clear. No one should assume Linux is any more secure just because it is attacked less. Both sides use research to defend their case, but even by its own admission Microsoft has a very poor record in this area.
It is commonly thought that Microsoft attracts hackers with anarchist tendencies because of its market domination and wealth. The Linux camp says the claim is an excuse, citing open source Web server Apache as a product with triple the market share of any competitive product but is comparatively hacker-free. It's a nonsense argument. Nevertheless, technology managers are becoming increasingly confident about deploying
Linux in mission-critical areas - a strong signal to resellers that services wrapped around open source software was worthy of investigation, if not investment.
Five respondents said it was now a mainstream operating system inside their enterprise. Another 14 reported Linux remained on the fringes, mostly as operating systems for email and Web servers, but they were thinking about larger, medium-term deployments.
IT manager reservations focused on a lack of Linux knowledge of their own staff to handle support and maintenance issues, and they were sceptical of total cost of ownership claims.
The strong support of leading vendors such as IBM and HP had increased their confidence of Linux, which means the planets are starting to align for resellers prepared to start thinking about how they can profits from "free" software.