Lack of competent Linux admins leads companies back to Windows

I was reading on ZDnet about some companies who migrated to Linux from Windows, and some of them migrated back to Windows! I’m not kidding. I was hoping to pull some deep insight from this set of stories about experiences in different data centers, the kinds of logistical problems that crept up, services deployed that just don’t offer the requisite functionality yet…. whatever. In short, I realize Linux isn’t all things to all people at this stage in the game, but it would be really great to hear some nuts and bolts answers to the questions of “why” and “where is it falling short”.

What I got from this set of stories was, basically, that there is a severe lack of competent Linux administrators in the world.

Austereo
One company, Austerio, summed up the move to little things that became annoying enough over time to reconsider Microsoft, including “inability to use BlackBerry handheld e-mail devices, poor identity management, administration difficulties, and a few too many irretrievable e-mails”.

Well, this sounded goofy to me. Yes, BlackBerry devices require an Exchange server. However, nothing says that you then have to migrate your entire mail infrastructure to Exchange. We have Exchange running on a PC right now (actually, we have for a few years now), and it gets email destined for BlackBerry devices handed to it by Sendmail, and nothing else. If it’s not going to a BB, it’s not going through Exchange. Period.

The “poor identity management” thing is a little vague, not knowing what the requirements were, but identity management is generally not a problem that is related to platform, unless you want to use something like Hesiod, which I’m not sure exists for Windows (but I don’t really know, either). Identity management is about defining a policy and implementing that policy. How you implement the policy will differ from platform to platform, because the tools are different — but there are tools for both platforms, so something has to give there. For the record, defining policy and the issue of identity management in general is non-trivial no matter what direction you move in. However, if by “identity management” they really mean “authorization/authentication”, and their problem was really stuff like file/printer sharing or heterogenous authentication, then they just missed the whole LDAP /CUPS/Samba movement, which is really a shame.

I can really only guess that “administration difficulties” probably relates directly to the abilities of the administrator. If the goal of the administrator is, as they say, to “automate yourself out of a job”, then what’s the argument that Windows is a better platform for this? Installing new Linux hosts in my environment can be done by someone with zero Linux training. I can write three lines on a pad of paper, send my mother down to a lab, and have her install, reinstall, or upgrade every machine in the lab in under 30 minutes. The three lines would read “Power on, hit F12, walk away”. The lab machines support network booting, so I just make sure some symlinks are in the right places, send Mom down there, and if I’ve done my job (which took all of 3 minutes), she’s back in 30 minutes and either everything worked or didn’t. When this doesn’t work, it’s usually a hardware issue. If I wanted to, I could even have the installation set up a VNC connection to my workstation so I can see what’s going on.

Updating machines (either to upgrade or add new packages) is no problem either. I happen to use nothing but open source, free tools for this. Whether it’s a lab, a server farm, or a beowulf cluster, I use “dsh”, which will perform commands on any number of hosts all at the same time. That’s me. I’m aware that there are also commercial solutions available to do “more robust” provisioning and maintenance, but from what I can tell, a lot of this is just wrapping a GUI around what I already do.

The bit about “a few too many irretrievable emails” is baffling. There is no email server that has a “make irretrievable” flag that I’ve ever seen, which would seem to make this point back either to the mail admin, DNS admin, network admin, or the end user, or potentially all of the above (but probably not the end user in this case). A problem with email alone doesn’t really justify a platform move. It justifies a reshuffling of your admin staff.

Coffey

This was the one that made me really wonder if ZDnet is partially owned by Microsoft or something. Basically, what happened was they had been running on Mandrake since 1999. A new CIO comes in with a mandate to revisit their “ailing architecture” at a time when they’re experiencing rapid, rapid growth, and had been for some time. He gets in to find that in spite of the growth in employees, they still have the same exact number of systems guys… 4 guys… supporting 1600 employees, and 72 offices throughout the country.

I’m not saying that this is impossible, because with the right skillsets in-house, and a budget for hardware/software and things like power, it can certainly be done. However, it’s not an ideal situation, and it’s not likely that a 4-man crew used to supporting 500 users in, say, 10 offices is going to know how to scale their own environment, because chances are the PHBs never let them into the meetings where they forecasted the company’s growth in the first place, so they may never have seen it coming.

They said another problem was sharing data. If you weren’t in the office that housed the data, you couldn’t get at it. This is a major problem that is as unrelated to platform as the color socks you’re currently wearing. If they want to say “there were so many issues due to the rapid growth that it was just easier to rip out everything and start from scorched earth”, fine. It’s a complete and total cop out, but whatever. However, I sincerely doubt that this crew is going to see any improvement by moving to Windows. In fact, they don’t say this is a Linux problem, they say the problem was that, “the way they set up their linux-based infrastructure had promoted the silo mentality”. So, rather than identifying that as the problem and dealing with it using existing technologies and skillsets, their thought was to instead take on a complete platform migration.

Is this an article about shortcomings in *linux*, or shortcomings in the methodologies used by people who are supposed to make intelligent decisions?

Conclusion

This article is the reason I tend to stay away from reading tech journalism. The problem is that tech articles are written by…. journalists. They aren’t written (mostly) by technology people. By “technology people” I don’t mean “able to use power point effectively”. These people get paid to write an article, and possibly come up with a headline sensationalistic enough to attract eyeballs to some ads so the publisher gets paid. It’s a real scam.

I’m not saying there could never be a reason to migrate away from Linux. There very well could be (somewhere, maybe) viable business reasons not to run Linux. For example, a startup wants a vendor-supported platform and has little money. Meanwhile, last time I looked, the sticker price of vendor-supported Windows was cheaper than vendor-supported Red Hat. Or maybe your business just absolutely runs on groupware. Integration is essential, and your desktops are all Windows machines. I could imagine someone trying the OpenExchange server, OGo, or some other excuse for a linux-based groupware service, and saying “screw this, back to Windows for us”. Business exists to make money, not to take the ethical or moral high road. They’re going to use what works for them and what they can support.

What I am saying is that this article doesn’t show us any examples of anything but a lack of competent admins to run some services in some environments, and a lack of competent CIOs who are able to identify problems and then work collaboratively to create solutions instead of coming in with a solution and making it fit the problems.

</rant> :-)