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Choosing a Web Platform

This fast-changing segment is like a moving target. But a little research and wisdom can go a long way when making this important investment.

Selecting the best Web platform for your organization is no easy task these days. Open source solutions–such as Linux–have roared onto the scene in recent years and now have the support of powerful outfits like IBM and Hewlett-Packard. As a result, open source solutions have become less risky and need to be evaluated in earnest during the selection process. For organizations that plan to use the Internet aggressively in the future–a category that includes companies of all types and sizes–it’s critical to choose a platform that suits your unique needs. Further, the decision-making process should include both an IT and non-IT executive since the stakes are so high.

Technology decisions are always tricky because the market moves fast. That pace is accelerated when it comes to Internet-oriented decisions, and the emergence of Linux as a credible technology further muddies the waters. Linux is a freely available, open source operating system that is Unix based and run on multiple hardware configurations. According to Information Week, "IT managers like Linux because it’s cheap, reliable, and performs well. Linux’s licensing terms require that its source code be freely accessible to users and that any changes users make to the code be redistributed to the user community." And it¡¯s not just for geeks anymore. Business Week reports, "small and midsize businesses such as retailers are starting to latch onto Linux, finding greater productivity and lower costs." The numbers prove it: according to Business Week Linux already has an estimated 56 percent of the Web-server market.

Though small and medium sized companies are the biggest users of Linux today, blue chip firms like Morgan Stanley, Cisco, and CSFB are using it for important applications as well. But it¡¯s not yet mainstream. Peter Houston, senior director of the Windows Server Group at Microsoft recently commented that Linux is "like someone giving you a puppy" given its relative newness and support requirements, as well as its questionable viability as an enterprise operating system. The right platform for your company depends on your unique requirements.

As with any purchasing decision, there are three core criteria to evaluate–cost, performance, and maintenance–when considering your Web platform. With any IT system, you also need to add security to the list. Issues unique to the Internet are outlined below. For the purpose of this article, we¡¯re defining the typical Web platform to include an operating system, file server, database, messaging, and development environment.

Upfront Cost :
– Linux is free, and the source code is accessible.

– Running a Windows platform will have a base cost of about $1,000 each for Server, Exchange, and SQL, plus fees for additional servers, seats, and CPUs.

– Also keep in mind Microsoft¡¯s new licensing strategy, which is an umbrella contract that includes the licensing of all Microsoft products under one contract. The plan is aggressive, requires companies to sign-up by July 31st, and is causing CTOs to seriously evaluate their use of Microsoft products.

Performance:
– Products are nearly commoditized and are functionally equivalent for 95 percent of businesses. Unless you¡¯re Amazon.com or GE, you won¡¯t be constrained in either environment.

– Windows is a mature technology with a huge installed base. Linux is highly regarded as stable and reliable. We know of a $10 million publishing company that runs its entire email system processing 500,000-plus e-mails per month on an old Pentium III system using Linux and Sendmail.

– How tightly do you want to integrate the Web with your internal applications? The holy grail of Internet computing is to have fully integrated online and offline systems. Consider your long-term Internet goals, current infrastructure, and compatibility with enterprise applications (e.g. CRM, SCM).

– Consider your database, but don¡¯t make it a focal point. There are enough databases that are equally good on either platform. However, if you already have SQL Server running on Windows 2000 that you want to Web-enable, a Windows platform makes more sense since SQL Server and Windows are closely integrated. At the same time, many API¡¯s allow you to "hook" any program language to any database. For example, if you¡¯re running Perl on Linux, you can access a SQL Server database running on a Windows machine.

Maintenance:
– What is the skill set of your IT staff? If you have a skilled ASP developer, Microsoft probably makes more sense. If you have someone who knows Perl and PHP, Linux should be carefully evaluated. Notably, most open source products are being ported to run equally well on Windows, so this issue is becoming less important since many open source applications are stable and reliable on both Windows and Linux.

– Annual maintenance costs will total roughly 10 percent of upfront costs in a Windows environment. Companies like Red Hat are available to provide ongoing support for open source environments; costs will depend on how open source savvy your staff is.

– Does your staff have the time, skills and interest to manage Linux?

– Do you want your Web site and related applications to be maintained without the assistance of your IT department? If that¡®s the case, Microsoft is probably your choice.

Security:
– Windows security measures are easier to configure than Linux, but they are also suspect. Microsoft releases security patches monthly, in multiple batches, most of which they label "critical."

– Linux security patches are infrequent, which many experts attribute to the open nature of the source code. Since thousands of developers have access to the code, they argue it¡¯s more unlikely a serious security hole is going to be overlooked.

– Microsoft has recently publicly "committed" itself to security in Windows products.

When it comes to technology, managers are often faced with the classic quandary: do I stitch together best-in-breed solutions or go in one strict direction? In this case, it¡¯s open source versus Windows. But the issue has another wrinkle. Linux was built to be flexible and has progressed to the point where it can be safely integrated into a Windows environment. Rich DeMillo, CTO at Hewlett Packard, supported the future of hybrid environments when he said, "Proprietary operating systems, as valuable as they seem today, will eventually be replaced by a more open fabric."

The ideal Web platform for your organization depends on your unique characteristics: skills, budget, performance needs, etc. Research from Information Week summarized this issue aptly: "The availability of open-source codes creates some technical opportunities, but there is no guarantee on the level, speed, or quality of service and support for Linux adopters, especially those with custom solutions." Microsoft will cost you, but it minimizes risk and the total cost of ownership can be predicted with confidence. An open source platform can be considered less predictable because it’s only recently been widely used in corporate environments; but you could also save money, realize flexibility, and maximize Web performance in an unconstrained open source environment.

Brian Piccolo is the CTO at Pixel Bridge Inc, a consulting firm specializing in helping small and mid-sized businesses use the Internet to improve marketing, sales, and operations. He can be reached at [email protected]

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