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Linux success hinges on IT talent at SMBs

One SMB discovers the value of Linux talent -- and develops a strong farm team as backup.

It was a year ago that Brent Biernat took the Linux plunge. Overseeing network services for COCC, a $40 million online financial services bureau, Biernat is now in deep.

"Over the next six months, we have another six Oracle financial boxes that we will migrate over to Linux. And as we introduce new products to your Internet services offerings, we will continue to add those to Linux, because it is a great platform for that," said Biernat, assistant vice president for network services.

The Avon, Conn., firm, which provides IT services to more than 130 community banks and credit unions in the Northeast, had been using a Unix-based AIX system and needed to expand. Biernat had been itching to move to open source and finally decided to entrust the expansion to Novell, deploying a SuSE Linux Enterprise Server.

"We have a very good partnership with Novell. We can fall back on them when we need to. That gave us some confidence," Biernat said. The company did not experience any downtime in its initial migration, and the Linux platform has continued to perform as well as the AIX, at considerably less cost, he said.

Dealing with a big player that can provide reliable support plays a key role in making open source technology work, according to experts. But the Connecticut financial bureau had another thing going for it: a team of seasoned Unix professionals. "Migration was not a barrier for us, because we already had the Unix/Linux experience in-house. It was a natural fit for us," Biernat said.

Migration was not a barrier for us, because we already had the Unix/Linux experience in-house. It was a natural fit for us.
Brent Biernat
In addition to its Unix pros, the company has developed a "farm team" of recent college graduates, Biernat said. "We have been able to hire very good talent. They are very good Linux hobbyists, who we can train to be excellent professionals. And they are passionate about open source, which always makes a difference," he said, adding that he expects this generation will play an important part in open source adoption. "The youth with their passion for it will push open source into the business environment."

COCC has not only become something of a poster child for Novell, it is a rarity among SMBs.

The latest Gartner Hype Cycle for Linux 2005 said Linux has matured into an established operating system since 2003, though it still needs proving up for more than four processors. By end of 2005, Gartner expects even more commercialization of the open source system, including improved storage and systems management. But widespread mainstream adoption of Linux? That's still another two to five years away, predicts the Stamford, Conn.-based consulting firm.

SMBs are even more ambivalent about open source. A recent Forrester Research Inc. survey of 798 technology decision makers at U.S. SMBs on Linux adoption found that while interest is high -- 50% would consider Linux for desktop applications -- deployment is a low priority for all but a small percentage of firms. According to Forrester, Linux lags in importance to putting in or upgrading major applications and supporting regulatory compliance. Only 7% of SMBs said moving their systems onto Linux is "very important," compared with 25% who cited applications as a top concern and 16% who cited compliance support.

The Forrester survey also revealed that the interest in open source varied by company size and by industry. For example, interest in open source was stronger among larger SMBs with 500 to 999 employees, with 14% citing migration to open source as "very important" and another 35% saying that it is important. Manufacturing and business services sectors indicated the greatest interest in open source, and the retail and wholesale trade sector the least.

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The data dovetails with what other SMB analysts are hearing. "We've seen interest in open source software, but what we've noticed over the last several quarters is that the interest seems to have plateaued," said Mika Yamamoto Krammer, who covers the SMB industry for Gartner. She attributes the flattening to "the lack of an ecosystem" to support open source.

"If you look at the Windows ecosystem, virtually every product plugs and plays into the Microsoft environment. If you look at a security product or a sales force automation product, most of them are on version 10 of whatever and have been running in the past on the Windows environment. That isn't the case in the open source, Linux environment," Krammer said.

Finding partners skilled enough to support, maintain and deploy open source solutions available now is tough. In addition, many if not most SMBs don't have the internal skills to justify the lower cost of open source.

"SMBs have a strong desire to maintain a more homogenous IT environment, because for them that means simplicity. And it means a lower cost of owning technology because they only have to train, retain and hire one skills set," Krammer said.

Midmarket and SMBs are not going to completely relinquish a Windows environment, so they would have to retain Windows skills, even if they choose to go the Linux or open source route, Krammer said. "The migration costs are just too high."

Krammer doesn't anticipate a major shift from Windows, but said it will be interesting to see what the market does in 2010, when official support for Windows 2003 ends. As for the influence of a young Net-savvy generation on open source, Krammer is skeptical of youth's power, its passion notwithstanding. She pointed out that even if the percentage of graduates interested in open source is greater than in years past, the absolute number of graduates is shrinking, due to population shifts.

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