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"It Is One Technology That Is Creating More Supporters Every Day And They Are All Emotional About It"

With Linux fast gaining popularity, many user groups have mushroomed across the country. The most popular among these is India Linux User Group, an umbrella society that today spearheads the Linux movement in India. Raj Mathur, member, India Linux User Group-Delhi, talks to Network Magazine about the group's activities and the various reasons behind the Linux juggernaut

Can you define the structure of India Linux User Group and the initiatives, issues that are foremost in your discussions?
In India, there is an umbrella organization called India Linux User Group (ILUG) or Linux India. There are local user groups in most of the large cities. Each city has more than 40 Linux user groups. As yet, none of these has the status of a formal organization; even Linux India hasn't been registered as a society. But some of them are in the process of doing so.

The main function of Linux India is coordination and interaction with external entities. It helps smaller user groups to reach wider audiences through seminars and road shows. The Linux User Group-Delhi or Linux- Delhi as it is called, is under ILUG and functions more or less like other Linux societies in addressing issues, solving problems and creating new development ideas for Linux. Our members come from every walk of life. 70 per cent of them are from IT-related companies, be it vendors, developers, users or students. Surprisingly, the remaining 30 per cent consist of bureaucrats, army personnel and even doctors.

The issues that we have been focussing on recently have been related to installation of Linux on non-standard hardware such as Mac laptop, how tos for those who may want to do graphic design using Linux. We also focus on pure technology where we look at such aspects as feasibility of Linux in various environments such as SAN or compatibility with Frame Relay or ATM. We also focus on logistics and maintenance issues.

Do you feel that Linux will become the property of fanatics as is the case with Apple Mac, or will it be easily adaptable within any environment like NT?
In fact, Linux is a bit like both. At the core you have hardcore developers and user groups, who are pushing it, working day in and out. They consider Linus Torvalds god. Furthermore, if you look at the trends in the IT industry, very few technologies have awakened emotion in users or developers. Apple Macintosh is one, which did. SGI is another and now we have Linux. It is one technology that is creating more supporters every day; they are all emotional about it.

Fanatics apart, there is a lot of activity within the enterprise or corporate world with respect to Linux. While there is an overt movement by developers, there is also an underground transition happening within the enterprise. Slowly, lots of enterprises are deploying Linux. Obviously, most are doing it in pockets and as small projects. But testing of this technology within corporates has already begun.

Most vendors talk about a clearly defined Linux strategy. What is your perception of the situation on the vendor front?
I don't see anything substantial happening on the vendor front in real terms. Today most vendors such as SGI, IBM, HP or Compaq have to support three platforms. They are talking about Linux and their individual strategies for it. But they also have to support Windows NT or Windows 2000 as they don't have much choice at the moment. Another important thing is most of them have their proprietary Unix-based systems. So now they have to be careful while treading the path among the three.

In my perception, when it comes to a choice between Linux and Unix, vendors prefer to sell their version of Unix mainly because that way they can hold on to the customer. Secondly, most vendors offer better support for their own Unix systems than for Linux. Besides, by selling an open system like Linux, most vendors will not be able to define the customer's choice for upgrades and applications.

If we were really to question vendors about number of Linux boxes sold as compared to their Unix counterparts, more often than not, the numbers will be negligible. In this scenario their Linux strategy becomes more of a wish list than a business plan. I also feel that deep down; most vendors are convinced that their version of Unix is better than Linux. I feel these are the factors that are holding major vendors from going for Linux in a big way.

How are users taking this technology and what are the issues that are hampering the growth of Linux in the corporate world?
Linux today is still in a very one-man system kind of a situation. Most corporates that have deployed Linux will have ne very strong advocate who has pushed the technology. It still hasn't reached that level of acceptance where the CIO or CEO considers it on par with Windows NT or Unix. The biggest problem perceived is support and also applications available on the system. Most big organizations tend to question that.

A Rs. 2000 crore enterprise will today look at a technology only if it is assured of good after sales support. With Linux, most support set-ups are again either one-man shows or very small organizations that don't really matter. Naturally, CIOs of big organizations are not satisfied in hiring a small set-up to look after their huge operations, so they tend to select technologies such as Unix or NT, which already have a strong support system.

So till such time that Linux lacks a good support system, it will remain in pockets and small departments of most organizations and not emerge as a complete platform for the organization.

In fact Linux was voted the best-supported OS two years ago despite the absence of any formal support organization. So what I would like to clarify is that even today it is the best supported OS. In India, HCL and Hughes Software Systems are working towards creating a good support system for Linux.

When will you see the real adoption of Linux in the country?
Within the next two years we will see lot of migration happening from NT and Unix as well as some new deployments in India. The main reason will be by that time there will be a growth in support organizations.

The vendors will still be the same and won't offer much support. Most will be independent companies. Besides, Linux is becoming popular in colleges and training institutions. Today, the first OS that a student at NIIT learns is Linux. In two years time, they will be out in the market looking for jobs. Naturally then they will become advocates of Linux and deploy them in organizations that they work for. This is what AT&T did when it donated Unix to the universities. When the students graduated, they popularized the next generation networks with Unix. A similar thing is bound to happen with Linux too. NM

Priyanka Bhattacharya can be reached at priya_b@email.com

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