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Vol 20, No. 02 (April, 2008)

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GNU not Unix: Unixification of Windows as an alternative to Linux

Dr. Nikolai Bezroukov

"Ripping out Windows desktop and installing Linux
doesn't change much because the same users are there"

Re:Microsoft motives? (Score:5, Insightful)
by NightSpots (682462) on Wednesday January 14, @01:53PM (#7975997)
(http://www.2advanced.net/?a=111394)
If Microsoft provides a client for Unix filesystems, they get "embrace and extend" comments. If Microsoft doesn't, they get the "refusing to support open standards" comments. What do you want them to do? Do you want them to attempt to work with Unix, or do you want them to completely ignore the fact that Unix exists?

The phrase "GNU not Unix" have a very special meaning indeed, probably unanticipated by Richard Stallman  ;-). For me often (but not always) using GNU utilities and other software ported from Unix to Windows is easier and provide more consistent environment then usage of native Windows tools. Unixification of Windows means maximization of the usage of command line tools and scripting.

It is not necessarily always means usage of  ported classic Unix utilities. Many UNIX utilities are outdated to the extent being obsolete (find, grep, sed: in most case using Perl is easier then messing with all obscure options that those utilities got for the last 30 years, unless you are professional Unix admin) and other (including native Windows) command line alternatives are probably preferable. But many are still extremely relevant (awk, expect, Korn shell, bash). Also for some Unix command line applications a better native alternatives exist in Windows.  For example, FAR is definitely better then port of Midnight Commander.

One of the tremendous advantages of Windows over Unix is that Microsoft managed to enforce a single macro language (to be more exact a pair of macro languages: VBA and JavaScript)  for many of its tools (including major workhorses like FrontPage, Ms Word, Excel, Visio,  etc). It is also used in some third party tools like Lotus Notes) and as an internal scripting language. In this respect only OS/2 can compete with Windows. At one point Sun has chances to match Solaris with Windows by using TCL but they never managed to pull it off. 

Windows has a powerful capabilities on the command line that are severely underutilized by most users. Actually Microsoft supports developers well and provides a lot of free or semi-free utilities. Windows Resource Kits are one such example. They are essentially collections of pretty powerful command line utilities. Unfortunately they are not very popular and are definitely underutilized.  I see creating your own powerful collection of command line utilities as an optimal way of using Windows in both personal and enterprise environments and Resource kit utilities as SFU are important components of this collection.

A powerful command line environment which is so characteristic for Unix can be more or less successfully replicated in Windows and provides the same advantages: a better, more "scriptable"  environment especially to use in tandem with Unix/Linux server (my preferred configuration).

Unixification of Windows means maximization of usage
of command line tools and scripting

I am against using exclusively Linux as some open source enthusiasts suggest. For businesses with Windows installed base the cost of migrating to a single new platform is huge, and there must be tangible and quantifiable benefits that I do not see.  Several recent papers and reports present conflicting views on the real cost of moving to Linux. Some of these reports (often dismissed by Linux enthusiasts merely because they were sponsored by Microsoft), point out that there are substantial costs to absorb for organizations that implement a pure Linux-based infrastructure.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, has aptly suggested that the mixture of beliefs, ideals and enthusiasm surrounding Linux makes "Linux only" crowd very similar to a young religion.  IT decision-makers should consider facts rather than beliefs. Let us remain objective about things and not be carried away by enthusiasm. And, by all means, let us avoid the disturbing fanaticism and religious fervor of those who are motivated by hatred of Microsoft.

While at the university environment Linux/Unix can (and should) be used as widely as possible, if might be not such a good idea to put it on the desktop.  There are still a very strong reasons to use Windows as a desktop and it might be better to modify Windows so that they behaved more like Unix.  Windows scripting host now permits the level of scripting comparable to Unix in command line environment and vastly superior to Unix on application level (for example, all MS Office component are scriptable and that alone makes a tremendous difference.)

The same approach is even more appealing for the large corporate environment.  Anybody who thinks that the cost of Linux in a large corporate environment is less that cost of Windows needs to read Red Hat EOL policy several times before going to bed ;-). Even for servers Red Hat with their 12 month EOL thing might well be more costly then Windows. Let's look into two scenarios:

Outside of academic environment and departmental server Linux can be even more questionable proposition. For example, I do not consider Linux to be a superior or cheaper desktop.  It has its advantages as a development machine, but that' about it and with the current hardware costs it's better to have both. The desktop cost turns out to be determined not by the initial cost of OS, but by the cost of hardware as well as availability and quality of  drivers and software applications. The total cost of ownership of  OS it is typically less than 10% of the cost of a typical desktop.  If you work on cheap hardware or use some fancy hardware often the only drivers available are Windows drivers. And  any reasonable specialist needs to adapt to this situation.  Free applications are available both for Windows and Linux, but I would say that all major free applications for Linux are available for Windows too (Star Office, Apache, Perl, PHP, Python, etc) and can reduce the cost of ownership as effectively or more effectively then in Linux.   Reverse is not true.

Also the cost of keeping the basic Windows-office environment are often exaggerated, especially in case of large corporations. For a large corporation Windows environment is as close to free as one can get ;-). Let's assume the following schedule the presupposes upgrades once in every three years) and no corporate discounts:

That means that organization might spend on basic Microsoft software just $1700 per employee per twelve years or less then $200 per year employee per year. Or less then a dollar a day. In the USA that's approximately the same amount per employee that is spent for coffee :-).  Federica Troni, a senior Gartner analyst, noted the following exaggerations or "myths" as he put it (text is blue is mine --nnb):

  1. Linux will be cheaper than Windows because StarOffice can be used instead of MS Office. Not true: Star Office is easier to use in Windows environment then in Linux environment. It's actually better suited to the Windows environment...

  2. Linux is free. Partially true (if you use downloaded copy, but in this case you have no support), but does not matter: the main part of the cost of the ownership is not the initial cost of the OS, anyway.
  3. No forced upgrades. Not true, especially if you use Red Hat. They are extremly greedy and badly want your money ;-). Moreover Linux kernel is still pretty raw and compatibility can be broken pretty easily if you stay with, say, five-seven years old version (equivalent of Windows NT or Windows 95-98).

  4. Linux will require significantly less labor to manage. Not true, as Red Hat and other distributions are very complicated and tricky to manage. In some areas even more then Windows. Just try to get all the keys of Midnight Commander work on RH9 and compare with FAR on Windows that works OK out of the box ;-).

  5. Linux will have a lower total cost of ownership than Windows because of available management tools. Not true as Linux GUI tools are very rudimentary and some are counterproductive in comparison with their classic command line alternatives.

  6. Hardware will be able to be kept longer if Linux is used or holder hardware can be used. Not true but also does not matter as hardware does not usually survive for more then seven years both in large corporations and at home, anyway.

  7. Applications will be cheap or free. Not true. While set of free tools for Linux is acceptable it is far from the cutting edge. Top editors, debuggers, etc actually can be and often are more expensive.

  8. Transferable skills. Only from other Unixes. 

Why are these myths? Federica produced a table which outlines the total cost of ownership, based on a 2,500 user environment with a mixed user base:

Even if you take our primitive calculation of the cost of ownership of the Microsoft Office, per person, from 1991 to 2001, and then multiply them by 10K users then the cost of ownership for large organization is  just $3 million dollars per decade. For a billion dollar corporation this is non-essential cost, almost a rounding error. 

Fortune 500 companies usually can negotiate much better deals with Microsoft and believe me that for such a company the cost of upgrade of to, say, Office 2000 will be much less than $200 per user. Often more then 50% less. Actually this difference does not matter much because the real cost is slightly more if you do not have "unlimited" licenses because you need to spend money/time/resources on getting contract, tracking licenses including a non-trivial controls which software goes with which computer. In a large corporation tracking licenses might actually represent more than $100K a year overhead (one person plus some equipment and software), and thus became a major part of overhead. that's why for anybody with, say, 20K user licenses or more it might make sense to negotiate "unlimited" license. 

Of course you need to be careful with Microsoft and when MS.Blaster, Mymail or SoBig hit, I saw several corporations that were crippled for a day or so. That's a lot of money. And that's probably doubles the real cost ownership. But this is just because Windows is a dominant OS, not because similar worms cannot be successful in Linux. Linux in corporate environment is as unpatched (or even more unpatched) then Windows.

There is not free lunch. If you use Linux you need to weigh this against the cost of migrating, retraining and cost of support of open source environment as well as cost of securing the Linux box. I think that for a large corporation just retraining costs alone will be more than  $3 million for 10K users. That means that you did not get any substantial financial advantages for rolling out a pure Linux desktop in a sizable organization for at least a decade.

Moreover, relatively few IS people have good working knowledge or expertise with Linux. Retraining specialists from Windows to Linux is very expensive and takes time. In addition, relatively few organizations are running Linux, overall, so the pool of expertise is limited. But you can cut this costs by implementing Unix utilities and several other parts of Unix environment (shell, gcc, Apache, Perl, etc) in Windows environment as the first step of such migration.

Over time, TCO of supporting a Linux desktop might become gradually less as Linux penetrates deeper into the market. Students often learning it as the major OS because the financial barrier to entry is so low. As the number of experts increase, the TCO will decrease. Meanwhile you can do a lot to make Windows more productive by replacing some weak tools and adding Unix ports of the best Linux software. It's still free...

There are four major Unixification suits:



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