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IBM, ISVs lure NT users with Linux

IBM shows off the customers it has won from Microsoft like a hunter displays moose heads on his billiard-room wall. But can Big Blue really convince more than a handful of NT users that Linux is a viable alternative?

IBM's plan to recruit Microsoft NT users to IBM and Linux may be viewed by some as laughable. But Big Blue couldn’t be more serious about the open source platform. IBM says the rising number of ISVs moving to open source is proof that it has a chance at converting thousands.

"What we're seeing is a groundswell of ISVs moving from Microsoft to IBM," said Scott Hebner, vice president of marketing and strategy for IBM's software group. "What's at the core of it? Resellers are making a commitment to open source."

The topic of Linux was coming up in conversation more and more. We saw it as a movement.
Dave Pava
vice president of sales MarCole Enterprises

By the end of 2004, Microsoft is expected to discontinue support for Windows NT and stop distributing security patches. That means that about 2 million customers will have to develop a migration strategy.

Microsoft declined to comment for this article.

IBM is going to target executives who are in charge of migration strategies by providing free NT-to-Linux migration classes for resellers, ISVs and other business partners. The added expertise could help Big Blue and its partners nab those indecisive NT customers for IBM.

"IBM has been riding the wave of growing ISV support for Linux," said Charles King, an analyst with the Sageza Group. King said IBM is also playing off the fear and uncertainty of NT users who know Microsoft is trying to push them onto XP.

Cynics say it’s difficult to imagine customers going to Linux because, the critics say, Linux still lacks credibility. But King said the idea makes sense.

"If you're going to be forced into upgrading … you might be thinking about moving onto an IBM system supporting Linux," he said. "IBM is trying to leverage this movement, but the fact is it is not without substance. What IBM is offering gives end users the flexibility that Microsoft does not."

Of the 150 ISVs who've signed on with IBM as part of its "ISV advantage" program, 71% have started Linux technology initiatives or are currently enabled to run Linux with IBM middleware, IBM says. IBM also contends that with the IBM SpeedStart program, more than 55,000 developers work with IBM middleware to build applications that run on Linux, and developers have created nearly 8,000 new Linux-based applications for IBM software.

"Linux adoption is a reflection of a broader open standards movement," said IBM's Hebner. "ISVs are moving to Linux because it's what they're customers want. Every single major industry … when they begin to mature, there's a natural movement toward standards and [an] open standards base. For the user, it means choice and lower costs."

Clearly, the appeal of a nonproprietary system without licensing fees is a huge draw for businesses. However, even some of the open source movement's proponents say that Linux has a long way to go before it can be considered a credible alternative to Windows.

Microsoft proponents say that the software giant's products have a lower total cost of ownership than Linux and other open source software. Others point to the number of applications that run on Windows that do not run on Linux.

Some analysts find the thought that IBM could actually usurp Microsoft as a dominant operating system laughable, and they expect any long-term implications to be small.

"I don't see a lot of users jumping at the chance to migrate to Linux," said Peter Kastner, an analyst with the Boston-based Aberdeen Group.

But Rob Meyer, director of Internet services at Anaconda Sports, Kingston, N.Y., dumped his Windows platform for WebSphere running Linux. Linux was not the determining factor for the move, though -- he was just looking for something to power his company's Web site.

"It was simply because of the propriety software issue … the licensing fee thing … we wanted to avoid that cost," Meyer said. "We didn't go out to get rid of Windows and search for Linux, we were looking for a new back-office support that was scalable. It just so happens that Linux met all our needs."

Meyer switched to a reseller that supported Linux; his previous supplier did not.

Dave Pava, vice president of sales for MarCole Enterprises, a developer of interactive retail systems in Walnut Creek, Calif., said that what he sees is that the "classic argument" against Microsoft is turning the tides in favor of Linux.

"Users want lower total cost of ownership, open source," he said. "The topic of Linux was coming up in conversation more and more. We saw it as a movement."

As a result, Pava said, a growing number of customers were not interested in a Microsoft solution, so his company beefed up its Linux offerings: "We clearly needed to deliver systems our customers were comfortable with. If a customer comes in and wants Linux, we can do that."

But despite the growing acceptance of Linux, King said, the real determinant of whether NT users move to an IBM-Linux platform is the applications.

"The real question is whether or not they can get the same application they enjoyed with NT," King said. "From what I can see, it's really going to have to be proven on a customer-by-customer basis."

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