Asia: Government Helps Make China a Linux Hot Spot

Linux usage is rising quickly in Asia, thanks in part to widespread support for the open-source operating system among governments in the region. But the real driving force behind the growing adoption of Linux in Asia is the business community's need for lower IT costs. The key to lowering technology costs is to choose open-source software and commodity hardware, says Linda Brigance, CIO at FedEx Corp.'s Asia-Pacific operations, speaking to Chinese IT managers at a recent conference in Shanghai. "We need to make sure we are driving our systems cost down with Linux," Brigance says. Despite the growth, these are still early days for the operating system in Asia. Microsoft Corp.'s Windows accounts for the bulk of software licenses sold in the region for both server and client operating systems. But while Linux holds a small percentage of the overall operating system market in Asia, it's spreading quickly. Shipments of Linux server licenses there rose by 36% in 2004, and shipments of client licenses rose 49%, according to IDC. Windows shipments are also growing, but at a slower pace: 24% for server licenses and 14% for clients. One of the companies that has benefited from increased Linux usage is Dell Inc., which is seeing demand for Linux-based servers rise at double-digit rates. Linux is one of the most important operating systems in Asia, particularly in the server market, says Bill Amelio, Dell's senior vice president for Asia-Pacific and Japan. "A lot of customers are looking for open standards," Amelio says, noting that demand for Linux in Asia has outpaced demand in other regions.

Big Growth in China
Much of this demand is coming from China, where the government has backed Linux as an alternative to Microsoft's continued dominance of the operating system market. But government support isn't the only reason a growing number of Chinese companies are using Linux. Practical business demands are playing a role too, particularly in the country's financial industry. In April, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), the country's largest bank, announced plans to deploy Turbolinux Inc.'s Turbolinux 7 DataServer operating system for all of its front-end banking operations over a three-year period. While financial terms of managers. "I always suggest that my customers use Linux," he says.

T.C. Juan, vice president of new technology development at Taiwan Mobile
T.C. Juan, vice president of new technology development at Taiwan Mobile
Image Credit: David Hartung / Getty Images

Government Influence
Like in other parts of the world, governments in Taiwan and Hong Kong are long-winded about open-source initiatives. But much of their support for Linux appears to be on paper only; implementation of the operating system has been slow. Businesses in both places have picked up the slack, turning to Linux as a lower-cost way to run servers and other systems. In Taiwan, for example, officials have long worked on plans to deploy Linux on computers in government offices and public schools. Although there have been some success stories, progress has been slow, critics say. But a major government initiative that began nearly five years ago has produced results such as the promotion of Linux in embedded software, with the help of the island's hardware makers. Championing open-source software in Taiwan has been particularly important because of the huge role Taiwanese companies play in the global IT market. Taiwanese companies operating on the island and in China account for a large share of the world's IT products and parts -- and nearly the entire world supply of motherboards. A number of companies say they have either used Linux or released hardware and software specifications to allow open-source community members to create their own drivers. Drivers are typically small software files that contain information a computer needs to recognize and control hardware devices. For example, in April, two Taiwanese makers of graphics chips released the software code for some of their drivers to the open-source community. The two companies, Via Technologies Inc. and XGI Technology Inc., released the source code for some graphics chips and LCD drivers. The idea is that developers will be able to use the code to create drivers for operating systems not supported directly by the vendors. But there's more work to be done. Richard Stallman, one of the main forces behind the GNU/Linux operating system and the free software movement, visited Taiwan in May to ask PC parts makers to provide the specifications necessary for developers to write free drivers for their hardware. "We just need the information about what their drivers have to do," Stallman said during a speech at National Taiwan University. GNU software writers can use this information to create their own drivers for open-source systems.

Other business sectors in Taiwan have put Linux to good use as well. For example, Taiwan Mobile Co., one of the island's biggest mobile telephone service providers, launched a trial of its third-generation (3G) mobile services, which run on Linux servers. The company has been using the open-source software for years, mainly because of its cost and flexibility. "Even though we had to hire our own [Linux] development team, it's still more cost-effective to use Linux instead of relying on the big vendors," says T.C. Juan, vice president of new technology development at Taiwan Mobile. He says the cost of add-ons and upgrades and other issues have kept Taiwan Mobile from choosing a vendor for its software needs, but he added that the future is less certain. "Linux is already a proven and workable operating system," Juan says. "But shareware and Linux don't have the resources to do the continuous upgrades and improvements." In 3G technology, more continuous software development is needed to ensure that service providers keep up with the latest user trends so they can offer useful mobile services. Many other private companies in Taiwan have also adopted Linux for their servers, including the island's largest telephone company, Chunghwa Telecom Co., and investment specialist KGI Securities Co. Hong Kong has been a bit of a different story. While the government does promote open-source systems and has specific policy goals with regard to procuring open-source software for some of its bureaus, it hasn't made a major push to promote Linux. "Linux is still only picking up in developed areas like Hong Kong. It's far stronger in developing countries like China and India," says Irene Chow, a researcher at IDC in Hong Kong. "In developed countries [in Asia], many companies have entrenched vendors and don't want to switch." Even so, governments across Asia, including those of Japan, South Korea and Malaysia, have announced programs designed to encourage the use of Linux by local companies. But not everyone feels those efforts are enough. Says Takashi Kodama, a vice president at Japanese Linux provider Miracle Linux Corp.,"We need more government support, and we need the government to announce some major projects for Linux."

Lemon and Nystedt are Taipei correspondents for the IDG News Service. Paul
Kallender in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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Linux Goes Global

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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