Bottom Line - What CxOs Think About Linux
Sep/Oct 2004 by Guy Smith
They love it! Understand why
CIOs and CTOs love Linux, almost as much as system administrators. But they love Linux for entirely different reasons. Knowing what they expect from Linux will help you craft your business and technology vision.
Senior Vice President of MIS,
Wisconsin Physicians Service
I must have looked dumbfounded. The CIO I was interviewing on behalf of SUSE was waxing philosophical about why Linux was the greatest thing to happen in IT since punch cards went away.
"Linux is helping me fulfill all my top objectives, and for less money. Linux is the centerpiece of my technology strategy."
I expect such enthusiasm from techies, but it is disconcerting when normally evenkeeled management types become evangelical.
But this fellow was not the last energetic executive I would encounter during my interviews of CxOs. Each executive evaluated Linux and the impact on their IT departments, and had come to the same conclusions—that only Linux could achieve several key objectives in running their departments and contribute to the success of their companies.
This belief is pervasive in all industries. A survey of CIOs1 showed that 53 percent planned on open source—particularly Linux—being the dominant technology in their operations by 2007. My conversations with CxOs showed that Linux deployments were planned at all levels from mainframes down to desktops. This faith in Linux, combined with the fact that only 51 percent of CIOs think Microsoft is a trustworthy vendor2, means even Microsoft's desktop monopoly is vulnerable to the Linux onslaught.
CxOs are paid to think strategically. It should come as no surprise then that their faith in Linux is based on how it will improve their technical and business strategy. When it comes to Linux—and specifically SUSE LINUX—CxOs believe that four strategic aspects of their operations will be affected:
Maximizing Staff Effectiveness: People are expensive, and CxOs want to make sure staff time is spent wisely. SUSE Linux helps them achieve this on many levels.
Business Agility: Technology is now the centerpiece of competitive firms. Technology must adapt quickly to changing business, market and competitive realities. CxOs believe Linux is the pivotal technology in improving IT agility to meet business demands.
2 IDC, April 2004, "IT And Business Execs Are In Sync About IT Suppliers: What It Means For Your Strategy"
Simplifying IT Operations: Complex operations produce inefficiencies and downtime. Simplifying operations reduces complexity and improves IT support of business, while reducing IT cost. SUSE Linux delivers simplified operations on several fronts.
Cost Containment: The 1990's saw massively wasteful IT spending. CxOs are more frugal now, and want to contain costs wherever possible so the remaining funds can be spent on valuable new capabilities. Universally, CxOs perceive Linux as less expensive than alternatives.
Fewer Technologies and Smarter Teams
One theme was echoed by all the CxOs I interviewed: They want fewer technologies in-house, and they want their staffs to be smarter about those fewer technologies. These two issues are deeply interrelated.
CIO of Boscov's
Since IT budgets are finite, you can only hire so many technical experts. The average IT department currently supports at least four operating systems (Windows on the desktop, Linux and one or more flavors of UNIX for departmental and database servers, and a proprietary OS for mainframes or other midrange systems). This means there are at least four small, specialized groups responsible for their particular architecture, OS and the software that runs on each.
The inefficiencies of this approach are staggering. Each team knows little if anything about the other operating systems. This cross-platform ignorance leads to the inability to find solutions, correct problems and apply human skills where they are most needed.
This is where Linux, and particularly the SUSE Linux approach, are changing the strategic view of CxOs. Deploying Linux everywhere (or nearly everywhere) is the first step in reducing the number of in-house technologies and streamlining IT operations.
Let's dig a little deeper and see where your fellow CxOs are already gaining ground by deploying SUSE Linux.
Maximizing Staff Effectiveness
People are your most expensive resource. Despite recent shifts in outsourcing, you still must find, recruit, train and utilize experts to meet the demands that business places on your department.
CxOs also realize that their staffs are not as effective as they could be. By having to employ technicians with widely different expertise, individual effectiveness is limited in scope and the entire IT staff is hindered when responding to demands. CxOs view Linux as the centerpiece in reducing the number of in-house technologies, and thus the number of different areas of expertise in their staffs. This strategy achieves two related staff skill initiatives:
Skill Set Consolidation
Deploying fewer technologies means the skills shared by IT staffs become consolidated. With a common technical perspective, staffs communicate more effectively through all phases of IT operations. Communications will take less time, induce fewer mistakes and misunderstandings, and response to problems will be expedited.
Take for example the current situation when a problem develops between two different architectures. Odds are your mainframe administrators don't view the problem or share the vocabulary that your UNIX gurus do, and your Microsoft Windows administrators cannot communicate effectively with the AS/400 crew.
However, if Linux is deployed on most platforms, there is a technical lingua franca. Several CxOs I have interviewed have taken advantage of the virtual machine capabilities of their midrange and mainframe systems to add SUSE Linux, and use it as the common denominator between staffs and the center point for all new development.
Skill Set Portability
When skill sets are not consolidated, skills are not portable. Your developers, DBAs and administrators can work on their platform of expertise, but not on other systems.
This is a major problem. As a manager, you want to assign your best topic experts to a task regardless of where the application lies. In a perfect world, your programmers would be able to develop code on desktops or on the big iron.
CxOs perceive a "Linux everywhere" strategy as facilitating skill portability. Using SUSE Linux as the core technology on all platforms reduces, or even eliminates, the difference between platforms then relatively minor variations are easy to learn or assign to a few remaining platform experts.
Business on the Move
The good news is your CEO recognizes the value of IT and how technology can make your company more agile—better able to respond to changes in the market and competitive threats.
This is the bad news too, because IT is rapidly becoming the first place the CEO turns to when change is needed. CxOs see Linux as a source of business agility, both in new capabilities it brings as well as how it changes their IT organization.
Platform and Vendor Choice
In the bad old days, application sets were strongly tied to one hardware vendor or platform. This limited the CTO's selection for the best combination of architecture and software to meet business demands. They were stuck with whatever platform the application vendor supported, and should that platform ever become insufficient, then a painful software migration or porting effort were the only options.
SUSE Linux was widely adopted by CTOs as their strategic platform because of SUSE's leadership on mainframe and commodity 64-bit platforms, as well as industry standard 32-bit systems. With the participation of strategic database vendor partners, SUSE was able to give platform choice, both in terms of meeting current needs, but also in meeting the unknowable needs of the future. Thus, when the CEO announced a new business initiative, there was less worry over what platforms were desirable because the application that solved the business problem was highly portable across SUSE Linux.
The Role of Consolidated Skill Sets in Business Agility
We noted earlier that a primary CxO objective was to consolidate IT skill sets. This figures prominently in improving IT's agility in response to changing business mandates. Two agility-related effects of skill set consolidation are deeper understanding of fewer technologies being used and skill portability. Both improve IT agility.
Let's look first at deeper understanding of technology. Presently, most IT professionals lack a "guru" status. None can invest the time in deeply learning any one technology, much less the myriad currently deployed. Linux drives the process of having fewer in-house technologies. The staff-level effect of this strategy is to provide greater time and training on the few remaining technologies. IT staffs obtain a deeper understanding of their operating system, selected database engines and programming languages.
Assistant Vice President of Data Systems,
In terms of agility, consolidated skill sets cause things to happen more quickly. Analysis time for new applications drops dramatically since everyone in IT can collaborate on solution identification or creation. Deeper technical understanding also accelerates software development, streamlining not only coding but also the entire development cycle.
More important though is skill set portability. Technical experts are becoming a commodity while business area experts are irreplaceable. For example, you can hire talented C++ programmers who know Linux inside and out—and these people will be nearly useless to you if they do not understand special aspects of how your company does business as well as the issues, regulations and competitive realities of your industry.
I once worked in the IT department of one of the largest electronics retailers in North America, and remain amazed at the depth of knowledge about the parts and repair services processes in the retail industry held by a small number of programmers who specialized in a now obsolete operating system. These people were irreplaceable, but could not rapidly be made productive on the company's other in-house operating systems.
CxOs who have deployed SUSE Linux tell me that skill set portability was part of their long-range strategic plan. They plan on eliminating barriers to placing the right person on the right project when necessary. Their application developers will be able to cut code on desktops, midrange and mainframe computers with little or know additional training past learning Linux and the development tool chain therein. The business intelligence that technical experts possess becomes instantly useful everywhere in the IT department.
Expanded Solution Set
CxOs believe that in the long run, Linux will provide the richest set of solutions available. Their beliefs are well founded.
Vendors strongly support Linux because it expands their markets. Before SUSE Linux, a hardware or software vendor was tied to a particular platform, and their market and revenues were limited. Now they can easily multiply their revenues with little additional development or R&D expense. Other vendors have gone one step further by making open source key components in their product offerings.
For IT this means two things: solution portability across hardware platforms and more choices from more vendors. Thus, when business needs create new IT demands, the CTO has a broader set of commercial alternatives from commercial vendors.
They also have an extensive and growing set of alternatives from the open source community. IT staffs are routinely tasked with reviewing open source options before turning to commercial vendors. Often the solution they are looking for is included in the 900+ packages on a SUSE LINUX distribution CD.
One of the biggest fears in IT is solution obsolescence. This most often happens when an application must be moved to another platform—typically for scalability reasons. Since SUSE Linux is built from a single source code base, every distribution on every supported platform is functionally identical and interoperable. This gives CTOs the assurance they need in committing to a solution set given the effort to port between platforms is nearly zero. (See Figure 1.)
Simplifying IT Operations
IT is a complex business, and with billions of dollars transacting through their systems daily, the greater the IT complexity, the greater the risk. CxOs believe Linux will reduce IT complexity, and this will simplify and streamline their operations.
We have already examined how IT staffs can be streamlined, their skills growing and becoming portable once SUSE Linux is the common operating system. IT complexity is reduced on two other important fronts:
Eliminate Platform Variations
When multiple operating systems are used, each has its variations, even in tools based on standards. For example, I have seen variations in something as simple as FTP clients that made interoperability impossible and cross platform scripting useless.
Wide-scale deployment of SUSE Linux reduces (and possibly eliminates) these variations. This applies not only to the operating system, but to the development tool chain, utilities, third-party applications and more. All systems in the network will interoperate appropriately, and in the process, simplify IT operations. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) will be easier to write, exceptions will decline and response to unexpected situations will be uniform.
No Cross-platform Finger Pointing
In a multi-platform environment, things will go wrong. Dissimilar machines will refuse to cooperate. When they do, your platform specialists may refuse to cooperate as well.
I have witnessed extended cross-platform finger pointing sessions between technology bigots, all while end users and customers were idled. A lack of a common technical perspective, a systems lingua franca if you will, impeded understanding of the problem and a team focused solution process.
This problem vanishes when SUSE LINUX is widely deployed. First, the likelihood of interoperability problems is greatly diminished. But everyone in your IT staff will also contribute to problem resolution because every staff member is intimate with Linux. This means a short time to resolution and less annual application downtime costs.
No discussion of the CxO Linux vision would be complete without talking of money.
It is old news that Linux is less expensive than all other alternatives. Only Microsoft and their endowed analyst have yet to believe. What is interesting though are the ways in which CxOs expect Linux to contain their technology spending.
Containing Cost, Not Reducing Investment
The first thing I noticed when discussing money with CxOs was that they were seeking cost containment as much as cost reduction. The IT industry has had several unpleasant shifts in vendor pricing strategies, and CxOs have become wary of committing to proprietary operating systems. Thus, CxOs are looking for alternatives that contain costs now and in the future.
That is one of the compelling aspects of Linux and open source: Any vendor that violates trust with their client can be readily replaced with relatively little effort and expense. This creates a price containment pressure on Linux distribution vendors, a situation CxOs are more than willing to exploit.
But beyond cost containment CxOs universally believe Linux is less expensive in all phases of the product life cycle. These include:
- Acquisition and Maintenance: Linux is less expensive to buy, and consolidating platforms and skills will drive maintenance cost down as well.
- Operations Through Streamlining: Savings are forthcoming from IT staffs that do their jobs better and from operations that are more efficient.
- Development Through Standardization: Software development costs drop when IT skill sets are consolidated and there are few, if any, platform variations with which to contend.
- Staffing Shortages by Consolidating Skills: As their staff skills consolidate, and as the industry provides more Linux-focused employee candidates, the cost and risk of staff shortages drops.
- Errors and Downtime: Consolidated skill sets, eliminated cross platform variations and deeper expertise—all lead to improved operations and less downtime expense.
But this is only possible if the solution is universal. That was the very vision behind SUSE Linux. Our early discussions with IT thought leaders identified that a single operating system running on all popular platforms was the key to achieving the benefits of consolidation, streamlining and cost containment.
That is why SUSE lead the industry away from an x86-server-only mentality, with the first production-ready mainframe, midrange and desktop solutions. By doing so:
- SUSE Linux delivers the OS for the enterprise
- SUSE Linux allows choice of platforms and portability of code and skills
- SUSE Linux provides perfect crossplatform interoperability
- SUSE Linux is backed by the industry and the community
The way CxOs view it, Linux is an inevitability. There is no hesitation within IT toward adopting Linux as the core technology for servers, and increasingly, the desktop.
One waggish CTO said that SUSE Linux "kept the broken UNIX promises" by providing a unified technology with which vendors and their internal staffs could grow.