In-Depth

Winning the Linux Wars

Competing with Linux once filled Microsoft partners with dread, but now many are taking on the open source operating system with growing self-confidence -- and success. Here are the tactics for winning the fight.

It was the kind of scenario that used to strike fear into Microsoft partners' hearts, and Tim Marshall remembers it well. A midsize business was evaluating collaboration solutions, recalls Marshall, vice president of technology at Neudesic LLC, an Irvine, Calif.-based solution provider and Microsoft Gold Certified Partner.

"Microsoft came in and pitched Exchange and SharePoint and so forth to the customer and said the licensing was going to be $500,000, give or take," he says. Then another vendor came along and proposed a Linux-based solution with licensing price tag that was hard to beat: zero. That's when Microsoft called in Neudesic.

"Fortunately, I had an opportunity to meet with the chairman of the board," Marshall recalls. He urged that executive to focus on the overall cost of implementing and supporting the solution, rather than just on the underlying software's sticker price. From that perspective, Marshall argued, going with Microsoft would require an $800,000 outlay all told, "but in order to rebuild all of the things that SharePoint provides, it was going to be $1.1 million" if the customer chose Linux. "So there was a $300,000 difference, despite the fact that Linux is free," Marshall observes. Neudesic won the deal.

Such stories help explain why Microsoft partners who once dreaded battling Linux are now taking on the open source operating system with growing confidence. By aggressively challenging Linux's perceived strengths and highlighting Microsoft's overlooked advantages, partners are finding they cannot only compete with Linux, but beat it decisively.

"When Linux first broke on the scene, I would say partners approached competing with it with fear," says John Hollinger, senior vice president at Internosis, a solution provider and Microsoft Gold Certified Partner headquartered in Greenbelt, Md. "If anything, partners should relish the opportunity to compete with Linux, and they should win every time." (For more about Internosis, see this issue's Partner Spotlight, "Building a Firm Foundation in Microsoft Expertise.")

An Expensive Proposition
Linux may be an insignificant presence on the corporate desktop (Gartner Inc., the Stamford, Conn.-based research firm, predicts that by 2008, just 3.2 percent of non-consumer users will be running Linux on their PCs), but as a server operating system, it's growing at eye-popping rates. Server market share figures for the third quarter of 2005 show Linux revenue up 34.3 percent and unit shipments up 20.5 percent from the corresponding period in 2004, according to IDC, the Framingham, Mass.-based IT research firm.

Yet, despite that momentum, at least some partners are seeing less competition from Linux lately. "I think it's been going down, which is surprising," says Marshall, who estimates that Neudesic currently vies with Linux in 10 percent to 20 percent of opportunities. Hollinger says Internosis squares off against Linux in more like 40 percent to 50 percent of cases, but adds: "If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said probably 70 percent to 80 percent."

How can Linux be growing rapidly but losing traction in Microsoft partner accounts? For one thing, it isn't Windows share Linux has been eating into. "In general, what we've seen is that the growth of Linux has been pretty much at the expense of Unix systems, as opposed to people using it to replace Microsoft-based operating systems," notes Jerry Murphy, senior vice president and service director for the Robert Frances Group Inc., an IT analyst firm in Westport, Conn.

Another factor, however, is that partners are becoming more adept at dampening enthusiasm for Linux in their accounts by directly contesting its principal selling points. For example, when speaking with customers, Greg Henson, president and CEO of solution provider The Henson Group, disputes the belief that Linux is free. Henson, whose New York-based company is a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner, points out that licensing is just one element in a solution's total cost of ownership (TCO). When you factor in "the costs associated with hiring Linux people, expenses related to support and troubleshooting, and the fees for training to keep your IT people current, [Linux] becomes an expensive proposition," he says.

Integration is another costly consideration. Customers attracted to Linux and other open source applications often say they're pursuing a best-of-breed strategy, according to Hollinger. "The harsh reality is that somebody has to be in the role of integrating those products," he says. "One of the things you buy in a Microsoft solution is product integration all the way up and down the suite."

Internosis uses detailed cost comparisons to document the TCO gap between Windows and Linux, but is particular about the timing for presenting that information.

"We'll actually do detailed financials, but we'll do them last. I think that's the key," says Hollinger. First, "we map the two solutions in terms of fit to the business, long-term system integration, support requirements and the degree to which the vision for the product suite, as we're able to discern it, maps to the customer's business requirements," he explains. "Then we'll actually map that down to financials. When you do detailed finances in that context, you find that Linux is not the cheaper solution."

Neudesic counters perceptions that Linux is more secure than Windows with similar vigor, drawing on independent analyst white papers and other third-party sources. "If you start reading all the news on Linux versus Microsoft, the trend seems to be that Microsoft is doing better than most flavors of Linux"on security, says Marshall, but he adds that he regularly hears customers claim that the contrary is true. (See related feature, "The Security Paradox.")

Microsoft's Arsenal of Assistance

When it comes to Linux, "the most important thing is to compete on the facts," says Christian Finn, director of channel development for Microsoft's worldwide partner sales and marketing group. Finn advises partners looking for ammunition to check out these Microsoft resources:

Linux-related presentations, case studies and discussion guides are available on the Microsoft Partner Portal (www.microsoft.com/partner). Simply click "Competitive Selling" under "Sales and Marketing" on the navigation bar. To find relevant instructional courses, click "Training" instead.

The Technical Demonstration Toolkit, which contains 100 demos that can be run off of any laptop, comes with Microsoft's monthly materials shipment to Gold and Certified Partners, and is included in the subscription-based Action Pack as well.

Gold Certified and Certified Partners worldwide can get telephone-based presales technical support and sales assistance. U.S. Registered Members have access to a similar service. Partners in North America should call 800-426-9400. For other worldwide numbers, visit the Partner Portal and click "Technical Support" on the navigation bar.

Linux Killers
Addressing cost and security are just two of the weapons partners can use to combat Linux. Other tactics include:

Raising the caution flag: Linux is still a maturing platform, and with youth comes uncertainty. "The [Microsoft] value proposition is always a good sell, but it doesn't hurt to back that up with a really long hard look at what the risk factors are," notes Tim Beamer, technology infrastructure practice director at Pittsburgh-based solution provider Allin Corp., a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner. For instance, Beamer notes, "with a Windows-based solution, I know what my tool set looks like. With a Linux tool set, there are some dark areas out there."

Access to adequate support for Linux remains a question mark as well. "Linux has nowhere near the support structure Microsoft has in place,Ó meaning that customers need in-house IT resources to maintain a Linux environment, Henson says. At the same time, Marshall warns, it's much harder to hire staffers who really know Linux. Finally, because open source software is readily customized, there's no guarantee that even a specialist fully understands a particular company's exact flavor of Linux.

Hollinger notes that while any platform decision made today will have consequences for many years to come, Linux's future direction remains anything but clear: "There's no long-term vision for where we're headed with this platform."

Playing the R&D card: Some businesses view Linux as a way to reduce their dependence on Microsoft, but Hollinger reminds his clients that there are advantages to working with a company that has such deep pockets. "Microsoft invests north of $6 billion a year on R&D. There is nobody in the Linux world" that does that, he says. "Whose economic best interest is it in to invest the extra $10 million or $50 million over some period of time to make sure that's a secure computing platform?" (For more research and other resources, see "Microsoft's Arsenal of Assistance," opposite page.)

Going head to head: When all else fails, Henson draws on a proven deal clincher: performance shoot-outs. Building stripped-down application prototypes on Windows and Linux and then running them side by side has made the difference for his firm in at least half a dozen cases. ÒI am a strong proponent of not just telling our clients that Windows is a more robust, more reliable operating system, but actually showing them," Henson says. "When the playing field is level, Windows outperforms Linux every time." Armed with the performance card, IT managers caught between rival Windows and Linux camps can defend choosing Windows by saying that "it's not a decision from my gut, it's not a religious decision -- the evidence showed that Windows was better," says Henson.

Bottom line: While addressing TCO and security are also essential, a good performance shoot-out usually kills any Linux deal.

Battle Cry: Bring It On
Even though Microsoft partners are winning some battles against Linux, the war is far from over. "I wouldn't be complacent," advises analyst Murphy. "Where the open source environment's Achilles'heel is supportability and maintenance, the people in that space understand that this is a weakness and are going to work in the next few years to improve."

Still, Marshall, at least, is undaunted. His advice to fellow partners competing with Linux boils down to two words: "No fear."

More Information

Other resources include:
  • A library of third-party reports and case studies comparing Windows and Linux can be found here.
  • See details on IDC’s most recent server market share figures here.
  • Read an October 2005 Redmond magazine article questioning the reliability of TCO claims from Microsoft and Linux vendors here.
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