Beyond Religion: How to Evangelize Linux to the Secular Enterprise

By Sam Ockman
Founder and CEO of Penguin Computing

Enterprise Linux Today

June 19, 2000

The last couple of years have been a heady time for us in the Linux community. The fast-growing adoption of Linux in the enterprise validates both the business of Linux vendors and the Open Source philosophy. But we can't afford to be smug about this; we need to convince even more companies that Linux is the ideal platform for the Internet and other mission-critical applications.

It's not that we haven't done a good job so far. Growing numbers of businesses are turning to Linux, impressed by the operating system's reliability and cost effectiveness.

But I think we can do even better. It's time for us to widen the focus of our evangelism a bit. We need to speak to enterprises' CFOs as much as to the CTOs. And the first step is to recognize and accept the perceptions these executives may have about Linux -- as well as the technical and nontechnical concerns that often make them hesitate to switch to Linux.

This brings us to a challenging paradox: Linux simply doesn't fit the mold. Of course, technology-minded Linux fans rightly regard this as a virtue. Linux is stable, scalable and costs substantially less over time than competing platforms. These are strong arguments for starting out with Linux or making a switch.

But enterprises also want to know if the applications they need are available on Linux -- and how mature they are. They want to know if all the pieces they need for a solution -- hardware, operating system and other software -- will work together well and have sufficient support.

Furthermore, established businesses thinking of adopting Linux already have platforms in place. Decision makers want to know how well the new technology will work with their legacy systems -- and if their employees have the expertise to work with it.

It's not surprising, then, that some executives may balk at adopting a new operating system, even if they understand and appreciate Linux's virtues.

We're doing a pretty good job in addressing the basic technological questions that C-folks, usually the CEO and CTO, often ask. But technology isn't the only issue in running a business, even for ISPs, e-tailers and other concerns rooted in technology.

The Linux community, however, hasn't yet addressed some of these other critical issues involved in any major corporate buying decision. These concerns -- including procurement, financing and, sometimes, even politics -- might discourage a company leaning toward Linux. For instance, it's conceivable that Linux's low cost might cause a few buyers working with zero-based budgets to hesitate. They might foresee having difficulty getting necessary budget increases in the future.

We also must consider what every C-level executive knows: Running a business is about more than growing the bottom line. It's also about answering to the world -- employees, partners, shareholders and customers, the people who keep the company's world turning. Executives who want to embrace Linux must be prepared to explain their decision to all of them.

So, what can the Linux community do?

For a start, we need to be absolutely honest with potential adopters of Linux. Of course, this is always the right thing to do. But it's especially important now, when decision makers may be spooked by the recent slide in the stock market, which has included publicly traded Linux companies. That could make decision makers more than usually suspicious of anything smacking of hype. That's why you won't see fluff-laden news releases from Penguin Computing.

We can't tell -- or even suggest -- to companies running on Windows NT or proprietary UNIX that switching to a new platform is as easy as changing an application. But we can do a better job of explaining that the initial discomfort is far outweighed by Linux's extra reliability, expandability, lower total cost of ownership and higher return on investment.

We Linux advocates stress the advantages of Open Source, including the many independent developers continuously working on the operating system and applications. But with potential enterprise customers, we need to stress the growing number of standard business applications written for Linux -- and the support the platform is getting from such industry leaders as Oracle and SAP.

Furthermore, we should emphasize Web serving and other applications in which Linux clearly excels. And we should recognize that some companies may not be ready for Linux yet -- and concentrate on the ones that are. Web-focused startups without legacy systems are obvious potential adopters. So too are large businesses; there Linux's cost savings can add up and employees are more likely to be familiar with UNIX.

We in the Linux community also must continue to improve the operating system's graphical user interface. Unfortunately, the perception that Linux is harder to use than Windows remains true -- although the interface continues to improve. For many technical users, this is simply not a major issue. But business users accustomed to Windows won't be satisfied with anything harder to use.

And we must always give highest priority to service. Just as Linux vendors offer clearly superior products, they also must offer clearly superior service to their customers. There's no room for error here; the reputation of the platform is at stake.

The Linux community has a lot to be proud of. We've come a long way in the last couple of years, making Linux a real player in the enterprise market. And we can look forward to much greater penetration in businesses ranging from Internet-based startups to Fortune 500 companies. But understanding the needs and concerns of business customers -- and doing our best to address those fears honestly -- are essential in determining just how quickly Linux achieves the high place in the enterprise that it deserves.

I run a company that has been a very vocal Open Source advocate. So I am often amused to see the look on new employees' faces when they learn that here at Penguin Computing, we view Linux as a business as well as a cause. We make this clear in our approach to developing new products and how -- and with whom -- we make deals. For we know this: Enterprises don't care about religious issues; they care about what works.

Copyright 2000