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Apple, Linux and BSD: The 'Other' Platforms

By Rob Enderle
Oct 6, 2003 1:28 PM PT

I spend a lot of time listening to lots of folks complain that they don't have a choice, that big, bad Microsoft has come in and made their lives a living hell and that someone should do something about it. If you are one of those folks, today is your lucky day. I'm going to start telling you how to fix this problem. In this week's column, I address the "other" platforms. Next week, my column will be about how to use Microsoft products successfully.

Apple, Linux and BSD: The 'Other' Platforms

The first step is the biggest: You have to decide to fix the problem. Back in the 1980s, I used to hear the same complaints, but they were about a different company. Back then, it was big, bad IBM that owned your soul, and the prevalent feeling at the time was that there was nothing anybody could do about it. Well, people eventually did do something about it, and today even IBM shops have more choices as a result.

The first people who moved to client-server platforms largely lost their shirts, but these people paved the way for others to follow. By the end of the 1980s, the IBM problem was a distant memory. What is ironic is that, today, your real choices for moving to a platform other than Windows include variants of Unix -- the same platform that initially challenged IBM. BSD is Unix, the new Mac OS has a BSD core, and Linux is a Unix derivative.

Each platform has its advantages and disadvantages. One thing you want to leave at the door is the concept that the alternative platforms will be less expensive than Windows. If you factor in every aspect of ownership, the alternative platforms likely won't cost less, unless you factor in happiness. Unhappiness does have a cost. If you can convince your management that the benefits of an alternate platform are worth the extra cost, and then your deployment of that alternate platform comes in under that cost, you can be almost assured of hero status. Let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of each platform.

Taking a Bite Out of Apple

Apple is strongest on the desktop. The Mac OS platform might not have as many applications in total as Linux does, but it has one thing Linux doesn't: a very solid version of Microsoft Office. I've used the Mac version, and I've generally liked it better than the Windows version.

But why would you even consider MS Office for the Mac, and why am I talking about Office anyway? Because Office for Windows is likely where your largest dependency will be. By not moving everything over at once -- in other words, by keeping your documents in Office-compatible formats after the platform shift -- you lower the risk of failure and increase the probability that your users will remain with you through the process.

The disadvantages associated with moving to the Mac platform include the cost. This platform doesn't use industry-standard AMD- or Intel-based hardware. While the hardware is generally better looking, you'll pay a premium to get high-performance machines. On the other hand, there are few viruses that attack Mac OS X, and the platform generally is as reliable as the other Unix variants.

While there are compelling arguments for moving to Apple on the desktop, the Apple server is very interesting technically but not very practical. The things that make an Apple PC compelling -- user interface and industrial design -- don't play well on servers, adding up as simply unneeded cost.

Migration costs are lower once you are on the server platform, but for enterprise-class tasks, you are generally limited to Unix management tools, which tend to be expensive. The biggest long-term problem with moving to an Apple platform is that the company is in decline, which means you might have to migrate again at some point to another platform. Despite this, the Mac is a solid platform and looks damn good on a desktop.

Liking Linux

Linux is the platform of the hour, but it is not yet practical for general desktop use because of the associated labor costs and user-interface issues. However, Linux is being widely used on the desktop in the third world, where applications are limited and labor is inexpensive. Despite the associated desktop issues, Linux is a solid server platform that doesn't require expensive hardware. In fact, some of the biggest Linux deployments I've seen are on AMD servers -- one of the places where the value of AMD exceeds the perceived risk of not using a major server brand.

Currently, most Linux deployments take place in a Unix environment because Linux is much easier to deploy in an installed Unix base than in an installed Windows base. Linux also has the greatest level of application and vendor support of any of the Windows alternatives. And having recently overcome its multithreading issues, Linux can scale very well up to relatively large-capacity, clustered configurations or down to departmental implementations.

As with Mac OS X, you are generally limited to Unix management tools when it comes to enterprise-class tasks. As I mentioned, these tools tend to be expensive. But there are an increasing number of open-source utilities available to manage this platform. The only major negative with a Linux deployment is the license, which is currently going through it first real litigation test. With the exception of the 1,500 companies that are largely based in the United States and targeted by SCO as part of its legal action, the near-term risk is minimal.

For the 1,500 companies targeted by SCO, you simply need to turn over responsibility for managing this risk to your legal departments and then follow their advice. In the long term, there are significant intellectual property risks with any product that is not owned by a deep-pocketed vendor. In addition, the development process could introduce new intellectual property issues over time, but you can document these risks and formally accept them in your company to reduce your personal career risk -- which is what you really care about anyway.

Begging for BSD

BSD Unix has many of the advantages of Linux, but the BSD founders went through much more trouble to eliminate intellectual property issues. As a result, BSD users currently are feeling safe from the kind of threat that is moving against Linux.

BSD has the least number of packaged off-the-shelf applications available for it, but it is still Unix, and there are several companies and education institutions using it very successfully. It doesn't have the application support that Linux does, and it isn't as trendy as Linux, but who says life shouldn't have trade-offs?

As with Linux, you still need to use Unix tools for network-wide management of a BSD deployment. And, as with Linux, you likely will find that there are many open-source tools that could be good-enough alternatives to the expensive Unix management tools.

The BSD platform is likely the best long-term value of the alternate platforms because it doesn't enjoy the potential open-ended risk of disruption that could occur with Linux should a significant portion of that code have to be rewritten as a result of SCO's litigation. BSD also enjoys the same low-cost hardware benefits enjoyed by Linux.

Calling It a Done Deal

All three alternate platforms require strong Unix skills to deploy, manage and secure successfully in an enterprise environment, although Apple has done the most work to lower this skills requirement. If you plan to look seriously at alternative operating systems for a large network, make sure you have the Unix folks -- preferably people with skills on one of these products -- on board to prevent expensive errors in the planning and deployment of the offerings.

Deploying Unix, according to what I'm told, is reasonably easy. If you are moving from Windows, you likely will incur higher costs -- at least initially. But if you are currently unhappy with the dominant platform in your organization, there is certainly a cost associated with that unhappiness. In both cases, be sure you develop a solid justification for changing platforms in case your direction is questioned by existing management or there is a senior executive change.

When people say they don't have a choice, they often mean there is no other product that has all the benefits of Microsoft's products without having the drawbacks. Give it up. I would love to own a car that is as fast as a Corvette and gets the gas mileage of a Honda, but it isn't going to happen.

The best thing to do is to stop complaining, then determine what is important to you and make a choice. Remaining with a status-quo Windows deployment is equivalent to making a choice.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a company founded on the concept of providing a unique perspective on personal technology products and trends.

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