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Enterprise Linux growing but still far behind Windows and Mac

More businesses turned to Linux last year, and Novell is making a channel push, but some say the market just isn't ready for mass adoption.

Enterprise Linux's share of the desktop operating system (OS) market is on the rise, but it still pales in comparison to Microsoft Windows and even the Apple Macintosh line.

Vendors and IT solution providers that work with enterprise Linux say it's a slow but steady climb -- with significant opportunities for channel partners -- although many observers doubt Linux will ever reach mainstream adoption.

The market share of enterprise Linux at the desktop increased from 0.1% to 0.6% last year, according to Forrester Research. Microsoft saw its numbers go down but it still controlled a whopping 94.9% of the desktop operating system market at year's end, and Macs rose to 4.2%.

At Novell, owner of SUSE Linux Enterprise, 2008 first-quarter revenue increased 69% year over year, and the second quarter saw a 38% increase. The company expects its momentum -- fueled in part by channel partners -- to continue, said Justin Steinman, director of product marketing. Next year, more than half of Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise revenue will come from the channel, Steinman said.

"We're moving toward a heavy indirect channel," he added.

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Novell's top competitor in the enterprise Linux market is Red Hat, considered to be the Linux market share leader. A Red Hat executive was not available for comment this week.

At Continental Resources, a Novell partner in Bedford, Mass., sales vice president Ken Simon said interest in enterprise Linux has grown over the past three to four years. Software compatibility has been a significant barrier to entry, but Simon said more independent software vendors (ISVs) are addressing that problem.

"There's a lot of ISVs that we partner with that are running on Linux," he said. "I definitely see more customers interested in Linux."

Continental Resources' enterprise Linux customers range in size and work in a broad variety of industries, Simon said. But Michael Silver, a research vice president for Gartner, said the operating system is really only a fit for very specific users with very specific uses, because 70% to 80% of the typical business's applications require Windows.

"Trying to move to Linux, there's just not a lot of benefit there," Silver said.

There is a window of opportunity for enterprise Linux because of the bad publicity surrounding Windows Vista, which "certainly has folks considering a move," Silver said. But Apple Mac is a more likely beneficiary of that situation than Linux, Silver added.

SUSE sees several opportunities for goosing the growth of Linux in the enterprise. For one thing, many Unix users are moving to Linux because of cost. SUSE also offers enhanced support for virtualization, a hot button among users.

A renewed emphasis on the channel could also help. On the one hand, Novell is reaching out to Microsoft partners whose customers want an operating system alternative to Windows, but it is recruiting other channel partners as well, Steinman said. Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, SAP and other global strategic partners are also helping to attract new enterprise Linux users, he added.

Novell's new ad campaign, "Making IT Work as One," stresses SUSE Linux Enterprise's interoperability with existing IT infrastructures.

"Novell is really focused on being part of everybody else's ecosystem," Steinman said. "All IT environments are heterogeneous."

That strategy could pay off eventually, but for now, most businesses and organizations are not operating system-agnostic, Silver said. There is a trend in that direction, but Gartner predicts that, even by 2011, at least half of all enterprise applications will still require Windows.

Until then -- and likely beyond -- enterprise Linux will continue to be a "really rough sell," Silver said.

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