Looking back on technology news from 2004 reveals a very distinct pattern. Specific words -- supported, viable, migration, economical and mainstream -- crop up with increasing regularity in reference to open source -- once relocated and restricted to the fringes of computing.
Most of those references were to Linux, which in the course of a year has grown into more than just an alternative operating system, and was hungrily consumed by governments, small businesses and large corporations alike.
Even after a myriad of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD), Linux remained thick-skinned and in the headlines, thanks to a diehard developer community that passionately responded to criticism and supported the software, even as Microsoft attempted to shut it down.
"The Microsoft FUD machine was in full cry this year, but doesn't seem to be making much of an impact," said Pund-IT Research principal analyst Charles King. "[Microsoft] typically works by co-opting, coercing or crushing their opponent, but Linux has been remarkably resilient. There is no way they can buy it or co-opt it."
With 2004 all but a memory, the Linux success story reads something like this: France dumps Windows NT for Mandrake, AT&T tests Linux in lieu of Windows, Brazil and China launch open source learning centers at prestigious international universities -- while surveys and reports from analysts touted Linux and open source as less expensive alternatives to proprietary software.
The headlines tugged on users' minds and wallets throughout 2004 before giving way in November to more news that the open source crowd could be thankful for.
San Francisco-based Peerstone Research, released data all but dooming Unix to a slow demise in enterprise resource planning while giving a boost to a surging Linux platform. Adding insult to injury, Peerstone CEO Jeff Gould declared that Windows Server growth was "at an end."
Reports from International Data Corp. and Gartner Inc. show that IBM was the market leader in Linux-based servers for the fifth quarter in a row. Both firms listed Linux server revenues for Q3 2004 in the vicinity of $1.3 billion, while early indications had Gartner principal analyst Michael McLaughlin predicting growth continuing on a steady pace into 2005 at 40% to 60%.
The other shoe drops: Big vendors act on latent Linux potential
Throughout 2004, Linux boasted a powerful list of supporters and developers: IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co., Oracle Corp., Red Hat Inc., Novell Inc. and a recovering Mandrakesoft to name a few. Not bad for a "fringe" operating system, especially when one considers the competition is the largest, wealthiest and most widely deployed software vendor on the planet.
So how did the underdog take on the giant? It would appear that the penguin had been using a very precise stone in its sling.
Take a look at the approach used by Waltham, Mass.-based Novell Inc. in its release of SuSE Enterprise Linux Server 9. This was not a direct attack on Windows and its desktop dominance. It was more of a segmented one that could be seen in CEO Jack Messman's own words.
"Novell Linux Desktop is not about the wholesale replacement of your Windows systems, but rather it's about identifying where and when an open source desktop can be a sensible, cost-effective alternative," Messman said. "In our pragmatic view, the time is now for specific desktop users to reap the benefits of open source."
Pragmatic. Practical. Realistic -- an approach analysts believed had the best chance of taking on Redmond.
"Aiming at specific markets is somewhat in keeping with the tradition of Linux," King said. "It's kind of a religious faith that [Linux] is a replacement for Windows, but its original success was in odd little corners like Web server and e-mail space. Novell knows it can work well here -- small fights first and gradually build up momentum."
On the other hand, it doesn't hurt to have a big blue buddy on your side either. IBM saw the potential of Linux from the get-go, and has been a longtime supporter with initiatives that include the OpenPower 720 server, as well as providing Linux on each of the servers in the line from X to Z.
Open source isn't all about Linux, you know
That's absolutely correct, as the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox Web browser proved when it caught fire as a beta release with more than 5 million downloads.
With those numbers, the free browser was well on its way to reaching the expectations of Blake Ross, the browser's 19-year-old lead architect, who hoped to "take back the Web" from Microsoft, with a goal of 10 million downloads in the first 10 days, following the official release. Indeed, news from a Dutch analytics firm confirmed that Firefox was having an impact.
"It seems that people are switching from Microsoft's Internet Explorer to Mozilla's new Firefox browser. The total usage share of Microsoft declined 5% and the total usage share of Mozilla increased 5%," said Niels Brinkman, the co-founder of OneStat.com.
In the database sector, open source continued to advance with help from blindingly fast Sleepycat Software and its Berkeley DB. Also promising is Computer Associates' open sourcing of the Ingres database. Ingres' founder and chief architect Mike Stonebraker said he believed this move would get Ingres back on track and in contention with Oracle.
Stonebraker cautioned that open source databases lacked the functionality of Oracle and SQL Server, but still had a chance, especially when one looked at how customers feel about commercial systems.
"[I]n my experience, technical support from all of the commercial vendors is pretty bad, so most people I know are not particularly a fan of any of the commercial database systems and are [therefore] very willing to try something else," Stonebraker said.
All in all, 2004 will be seen as the transition year when Linux turned a corner with people who didn't believe in it before now.
"[Linux turned the corner] with events like the arrival of the 2.6 kernel … the market's embrace of mixed x86 64- and 32-bit technology … and the success of Linux in HPC [high performance computing]," King said.
As far as 2005 goes, watch Linux and its open source cousins continue to build in popularity in all areas of the software stack, and expect the almost religious fervor that has accompanied the penguin to intensify in the coming year, as the rumble in Redmond inevitably approaches.