Australia: Linux Is Common, But Some Users Slow to Buy Support

Although some technology industry insiders say there seems to be a little bit of Linux just about everywhere in the corporate IT shops of Australia. But it can sometimes be difficult to quantify exactly where and how much.

Gordon Hubbard, treasurer of the Australian Unix Users Group and managing director of Sydney-based Custom Technology Australia Pty., says he finds companies there are less willing to pay for enterprise Linux than companies in the U.S. are, perhaps because they tend to be smaller in scale.

Steve McWhirter, vice president at Red Hat Inc. in the Asia-Pacific region, estimates that Red Hat has at least 1,200 customers in Australia. "But quite often, we get shocked when a customer tells us they have 60 servers, a lot sitting on the edge of the network, and they don't need to have maintenance contracts," he says.

The majority of companies outside the financial services industry in Australia use Linux to run their server systems, according to IDC. The public sector is also encouraging the use of open-source software, and a number of government departments have adopted it. But deployments tend to be smaller in Australia, and some users have taken their time in moving to supported versions of Linux.

Going It Alone

OPSM Group Ltd., a popular retail eyewear chain in Sydney, Australia, is a case in point. OPSM, which was acquired this year by Milan, Italy-based Luxottica Group SpA, shifted the mission-critical Legacy Support System in its data center to Red Hat's free distribution more than three years ago.

"We researched it thoroughly beforehand and knew what we were getting into," says Alex Chisholm, OPSM Group IT manager. "We are largely a Unix-skilled operation, and we see Linux as another variation of Unix. It would have been more challenging if we had been running Microsoft operating systems before deciding to go to Linux."

Chisholm says that while IT staffers had to be proactive about downloading and testing upgrades and patches, they never encountered a problem for which they couldn't find a ready fix. "If a problem arises, one of our staffers posts a query, and answers come in from around the world almost overnight," he says.

OPSM's data center experience was so successful that it has since rolled out Red Hat Linux servers for point-of-sale systems in each of the chain's 540 retail outlets.

Late last year, OPSM moved to secure a Linux support contract, which includes upgrade packages and indemnity protection measures. The company opted for Novell Inc.'s SUSE Linux because it owns other Novell products and wants to reduce the number of suppliers it deals with.

Although Linux server use is pervasive among private corporations and public-sector entities in Australia, the actual penetration rate in any given one of them is low, according to Vivian Tero, a Singapore-based analyst at IDC. Linux, on average, runs less than 25% of the server environments where it's found, and it's most commonly used in the telecommunications/media and wholesale retail industries, Tero adds.

If the government holds any sway, that could start to change. The Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) in April posted its 62-page "Guide to Open Source Software" to educate and encourage government agencies to think beyond "the traditional square" when they need to purchase technology.

"Certain proprietary solutions had the comfort of a big name that people could hide behind," says Sen. Eric Abetz, special minister of state responsible for the AGIMO. "What we were asking the various departments to do is to look at fitness of purpose and cost-effectiveness and not to dismiss open-source software as an option."

If a government agency opts for a proprietary product after careful consideration of open-source alternatives, as one department recently did, that's fine with Abetz. The AGIMO, after all, has no power to mandate that government departments even consider open-source software. But Abetz says he wants agencies to think about how they can best fix a problem before they go out and see what's available.

A scattering of government agencies are already using Linux, including the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The DVA serves about 3,000 end users through Linux-based Samba file-and-print services on an IBM z900 mainframe. The decision to move off Windows file-and-print services came three years ago at contract renewal time with the DVA's outsourcer, IBM Global Services, says Bob Hay, CIO at the Canberra-based national office of the DVA. Hay says the department was interested in Linux/Samba for cost and performance reasons.

"It all boils down to business value and cost. We keep an open mind in terms of what's available," Hay says. "It's not a religious approach. It's a pragmatic approach."

At the state level, one of the most closely watched open-source initiatives is in New South Wales. The government recently announced a two-year contract with a "panel" of Linux suppliers from which public agencies will be able to procure software, training, systems integration services and support under terms and pricing the state has negotiated.

Elizabeth Gordon-Werner, manager of strategic projects in the office of the government CIO for the New South Wales Department of Commerce, says the request to do the "panel contract" came from government agencies, but the jury's out on whether it will spur greater adoption of Linux.

Linux usage, however, is stretching even to the outer limits of the continent. The Shire of Broome, on Australia's sparsely populated northwestern coast, illustrates how the open-source operating system is catching on from the bottom up.

Campbell Creswick, a local champion of Linux, began using the technology about 10 years ago. He lectured at the local technical school and installed Linux servers for the students. Shortly after Creswick became IT manager for Broome, he recycled an old Pentium Pro to provide free Linux-based Web and e-mail services for 100 government employees. The shire only recently purchased a support contract from Red Hat.

Creswick was able to persuade Broome's main software vendor, IT Vision Australia Pty., 2,000 kilometers away, near Perth, to port its major application from Unix to Linux. He says he fields a steady stream of inquiries from his peers about Linux, although just two of the vendor's 125 local government council customers now run it.

Martin Bull, business development manager at IT Vision, says, "I guess our belief is that Linux is a more likely option for our customers to want to take up in the future."

Special Report

Linux Goes Global

Stories in this report:

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon