Originally Published: Tuesday, 25 September 2001 Author: Rudy de Haas
Published to: opinion_articles/opinion Page: 2/3 - [Printable]

Pessimism at LinuxWorld Misplaced

In this startling essay author Rudy de Haas lays out his strategies for the future of Linux and open source technologies both at home and in the corporation. Haas exhibits an uncanny understanding of the factors that motivate companies and individuals, and this thought-provoking essay should be required reading for anybody who thinks of themselves as an open source advocate.

An Alternative Vision  << Page 2 of 3  >>

An Alternative Vision

Right now, for most people, making the Linux desktop decision has a downside - personal responsibility for any negative consequences - and no comparable upside. Our job as Unix evangelists, therefore, is to articulate an alternative vision that gives decision makers a powerful personal motivator for buying in.

I'd like to propose one: put smart displays, backed by big Unix servers, on most corporate desktops and put Linux, or FreeBSD, on most home machines with full integration for the MacOS X application shell and easy connectivity for the remaining Windows users.

The technology for this is the easy part: products like Sun's SunRay and NCD's NC900 let you replace the desktop computer with a much simpler machine that does a very good job of exactly one thing: interfacing between users and server based applications like Peoplesoft, OpenOffice, mail, browsers, multimedia conferencing, or any of thousands of other products.

The most important thing about smart displays is that they're completely maintenance free on the desktop. From a corporate perspective this means no Windows support people, it means getting off the upgrade treadmill, it means centralized administration, better security, near perfect reliability, and it offers a five to one IT staff reduction along with far more freedom to innovate.

But there's a catch - you don't get the benefits for nothing. The cost is a dramatic change in IT direction setting and management. From a senior corporate perspective the control structures and incentives which traditionally favor budget growth and staff expansion have to change to favor successful service delivery. In response IT management needs to morph from parasite to symbiot, from cost center to profit partner, while developing the trust relationships with users that underlie the partnership. That's also what The Unix Guide to Defenestration is about - adopting the Unix mindset to better manage IT investments - but this is much, much, harder than changing technology and will correspondingly take longer and endure more false starts.

From a user's personal perspective server based computing means fast, clear, graphics on big screens with instant response even on complex data crunching operations; it means noise free, hassle free, high reliability operations; it means freedom from Microsoft product churn; and, it means easy cut-and-paste access to multiple concurrent applications.

In a leadership based IT environment these benefits would be accompanied by a change in attitude within the systems organization as it shifts to an outward focus and so provides more freedom, and more flexibility, for its users. In most cases, however, management will not adapt well or quickly and users will rightly perceive the change as one threatening increased central control and a return to the arrogance, expense, and ineffectiveness of the traditional centralized systems manager.

In reality, of course, the evolving Wintel alternative is rather worse. Microsoft's current push into the data center with highly restrictive licensing and insecure software running on rackmounts stuffed with little machines is far more of threat to user freedom and desktop control than the switch to smart displays run from big Unix servers could ever be. Unfortunately most PC users don't want to understand this - and it's not exactly being stressed in the PC press - and so seem like the frog in the beaker of water being slowly heated to boiling: able to jump out but apparently unable to perceive any need to do so.

An Alternative Vision  << Page 2 of 3  >>