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.
- By Rich Freeman
- January 01, 2006
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
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
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
"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
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.")
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
Linux-related presentations, case studies and discussion
guides are available on the Microsoft Partner Portal
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.
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,"
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
Still, Marshall, at least, is undaunted. His advice to fellow partners
competing with Linux boils down to two words: "No fear."
More InformationOther 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.