Microsoft Tries New Pitch to Curb Linux Use

Users split on value of indemnification vows

Just days before today's opening of the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo, Microsoft Corp. made another attempt to sway users away from the open-source operating system by spotlighting the need for strong intellectual-property protection -- an area where it claims to have an advantage.

Yet even though half of 28 users polled by Computerworld last week via e-mail and telephone indicated that IP protection is important to them, the results also showed that it hasn't been a make-or-break issue for the majority of companies that are using or experimenting with Linux servers. And the heaviest Linux users said they're doing a careful analysis to ensure that they mitigate any risks.

"I won't say we don't see a risk here. We do. But we thought it was reasonable," said an IT executive at a large financial services institution who asked not to be identified. "We think the vendors' agreements with us are sufficient for addressing intellectual property issues."

About 20% of the firm's distributed servers run Linux, and that figure is expected to grow, the IT executive said. He added that The SCO Group Inc.'s Linux-related lawsuit against IBM caused officials at the financial services firm to pay attention to IP protection and see to it that clauses in contracts with hardware vendors don't hold his company liable. There are also unspecified contingency plans in place should a problem arise.

Joseph Panfil, director of enterprise technology at Chicago Mercantile Exchange Holdings Inc. (CME), said he and two colleagues spent about two weeks in late 2003 doing a risks-vs.-rewards analysis of Red Hat Inc.'s Linux distribution on Intel-based hardware. The group studied the IP protection plans of each vendor that the CME was considering and sought out the opinions of the exchange's attorneys, he noted.

The CME currently runs Linux on about 700 servers from Hewlett-Packard Co. Panfil said that if push comes to shove, the exchange figures it can switch to Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris operating system, because the CME's Java-based applications can run on either Linux or Solaris, which it continues to use on 700 servers. He added that he's even more comfortable with the Linux decision now that an open-source version of Solaris 10 is becoming available.

And even if the CME had to pay license and legal fees because of an IP challenge, exchange officials think the cost would be offset by the savings it has accumulated by using Linux-based commodity servers. Panfil said the CME estimates that it saved $2.8 million last year by using Linux systems for its server expansion instead of Solaris machines.

'It Bleeds You Dry'

But Rick Smith, a network manager at Brown University, said he attended a free seminar in December that featured presentations by an analyst from The Yankee Group and three attorneys who specialize in intellectual property law. "They said, 'This is the worst thing you want to get into. It bleeds you dry,' " he noted.

Smith said that IP protection is a big factor in his decision-making process on IT purchases and that he was impressed with Microsoft's indemnification policy. "You don't want to go down a road gambling," he said. "At the end of the day, the simple question is, Can we get the same results out of [Microsoft's] platform without the potential hazards? It's a no-brainer."

Microsoft has made its IP protection policy a key component of the "Get the Facts" marketing campaign it designed to try to temper users' enthusiasm for Linux. Last week, Microsoft pointed to two new analyst reports confirming the issue's importance for users and to contracts from two customers, both of which cited IP protection as a critical factor that influenced their decisions to use Microsoft's software.

Stephen Graham, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass., said the importance of IP protection can vary based on the situation. Companies need to do a rational assessment of the risk, determine their tolerance for it and then make sure vendors' offerings are within the parameters they set, he said.

"Forget Linux, forget SCO," Graham said. "It's something that IT professionals just need to think about."

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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