Why FOSE matters
Linux at computer trade shows is nothing new -- but this show in particular targets no one outside the largest buyer of computers and software in the entire world, bar none: the Feds. The Federal government spends upward of 35 billion dollars each year on computer systems and software; how much more depends on who you ask.
"If you ask Federal sources, they pin it around 38 billion dollars, and that's become an accepted number -- that includes telecommunications buying. One of the reasons that the estimates are so diverse is that the government doesn't count things the way businesses do," says FOSE consultant Peg Hosky. Remember, that estimate too is conservative: trying to calculate the depths of the black budgets which drive some of the largest and most secretive IT purchases, not to mention contingency spending hidden in euphemized line items, is a black art.
The Departments of Defense, Energy, the Interior, Transportation, the Federal Aviation agency (and all the other agenices associated with the every Federal department) --- the list stretches from the White House to the most distant exploratory spacecraft.
The goods on offer at FOSE, though, are for the most part more mundane. Though the show is now simply called by its acronym, the initials stood for Federal Office Systems Exposition: you won't find radar systems or flight control computers on offer at the show. But for anything related to desktop computing, "FOSE's always been the introduction point of new technologies to the Federal government, because the government leaders and the national press focuses on this show," said Hosky.
Getting penguins in the door
The main-floor pavillion was the brainchild of Northern Virginia LUG (NoVaLUG) member Tim Bogart, by day a network server administrator for a major telecommunications company, and furthered by Lois Rude, industry manager with FOSE. After a Washington-area Linux exposition was cancelled nearly a year ago, Bogart asked himself and fellow LUG members "Why don't we get in on the real action?"
He began angling at a more ambitious target than the Linux enthusiasts who populate LUGs and Linux-only conventions. A previous job had put Bogart into the realm of Federal purchasing as the manager of a 20-million dollar IT project, and he knew how complicated government purchasing was. "My background isn't as a coder -- I'm an electrical engineer by training. I thought this was a way I could contribute to the community," he said. "You have no idea how complicated it gets."
Going from interested user to organizer put Bogart into contact with a receptive FOSE executive, and that made all the difference. "[Bogart] called on the sales people, and the salesperson didn't understand what he was asking for, so they gave him to me," says Rude. "I was new with FOSE at the time. We talked, we had lunch together and the more we talked, the more we realized it would be mutually beneficial to have all of them do something within FOSE."
Billy Ball, Linux book author and fellow NoVaLUG member, helped spearhead the effort too. "Bill and Tim came in and gave our sales team an amazing demonstration with Linux, and really educated us about it," says Rude.
Abstract goals like education are fine -- and to that end, volunteers from several local LUGs donated time in the pavillion answering questions of every level -- but the organizers also have a more pragmatic reason to make Linux more visible to Federal buyers: "I would like nothing more than to reach my hand down into Bill Gates' pocket and pull out $11-18 billion in accounts receivable," says Bogart.
To that end, he and the other volunteers solicited donations of software and information from Linux vendors, and cajoled others to actually show up at the show. Applix and Caldera occupied booths flanking the pavilion, but as you'll read they were far from the only vendors present.
The problem with "free"The biggest obstacles to getting Linux onto Federal desktops currently running Microsoft operating system is not just perception -- hardware vendors industry wide are touting their Linux compatibility, and mainstream magazines have featured Linux on their covers -- but the inertia which characterizes federal sales even more than it does the private sector.
High-performance computing centers like Sandia National Laboratory and Los Alamos aside, the problem is the desktop. Open-source software, Linux or not, tends to advance more rapidly and with less oversight than government purchasers are comfortable with.
Col. Stephen Quick, who specializes in training and retention for the U.S. Air Force, put it this way: "We've got a force of about 75,000 Air Force personnel who we've got to train to sustain that [desktop software investment]. Of course, our user community is all of the Air Force, about 550,000 people. So you've got to make sure you've got standardization, configuration control in whatever you do." The other armed forces face similar constraints -- workforces that shift at the drop of an order, and a work force made up of people enlisted for just a few years.
"We use a lot of UNIX in the command and control centers, but we use NT for the desktop," says Quick. With open-source software, "you could well have somebody developing a little application that they become dependent on. The person who develops it leaves, somebody else moves in who's never seen it before. If that's your expert, and they're now over in Saudi, you're kind of out of luck."
Citing manpower restraints for support as well as development, many vendors said their products would remain Microsoft-centric for the foreseeable future. "In my 20-person shop," said one biometric device manufacturer's rep who asked not to be identified, "we're doing everything we can to get even one client version out the door. We don't rule out porting to other platforms, but frankly we have to go where the market is. After NT, we're working on Novell, because that has the second largest installed base among our customers. Other clients have to wait."
Hits and misses
This may be the first year for a Linux pavilion, but Linux also showed up at the fair in unexpected corners: Apple, for instance.
While work on the BSD-based OS X is moving along, no machines at FOSE were demonstrating the new OS. However, under a sign proclaiming High Performance Computing, developer Kai Staat of Terra Soft Solutions happily demonstrated Yellow Dog Linux 1.2 on a Macintosh G4. With a few keystrokes, he switched from a KDE desktop to the usual Mac desktop -- or rather, to Mac On Linux, in a KDE window. "To the Mac OS, it's as if you just pushed the power key on the keyboard," he explained to some onlookers from the Air Force, showing them that both systems were happily coexisting on the machine.
After one of these demonstrations, NIST robotics researcher David Gilsinn told me "My scientific work, it's on UNIX, so I have to either run X, or go sit at a UNIX box to do it, so that [Linux on G4] looked like a really good option." Gilsinn said that his workplace is currently Sun based, but that "we're trying to cut down the cost of our systems, especially Unix systems, and Linux is getting to be a viable option."
Corel's large exhibit showed off, in addition to their Windows products, both Corel Linux and the company's office suite. And API, who manufacture the Alpha processor, were also out in force. I spoke with Michael Foley, API technical marketing engineer, about what Linux meant to their product. And despite the availability of BSD Unix, Foley said, "With NT no longer on the Alpha platform, I think [Linux] offers the best possibilities. The BSD Unix is a great Unix, but it doesn't have the push behind it that Linux does today. And the Digital Unix, True64 -- that's owned by Compaq, and it doesn't have the popularity [of Linux]."
Linux also shows up in many products which don't tout the OS unless prompted: it serves as the embedded OS driving Watchguard's firewall and VPN devices, and Linux on x86 serves as the platform for Trend Micro's AntiVirus software, which patrols for virii stalking more vulnerable desktop OSes. And a small company with the inscrutable name of Applied Business Services is quietly reselling and customizing open-source accounting software which runs on both Linux and Windows to both government and private buyers.
From the impressed looks on visitors to the Corel Office 2000 Linux kiosk, not to mention those on everyone who stopped to examine the tiny embedded-Linux Web server on display at the Linux pavillion, the interest in Linux products seemed palpable.
A Wednesday-afternoon panel hosted by Ball and featuring some of the biggest names in commercializing open source software, though, drew only sparse attendance and seemed aimed at a less Linux-saavy audience which didn't materialize -- perhaps because it intersected the 4 p.m. end of the Expo day.
Chris DiBona of VA Linux and Red Hat's Bob Young joined SGI VP of marketing for servers and high-end graphics Jan Silverman and Rene Schmidt of Corel's Linux division.
Unsurprisingly, and despite a few friendly jabs at each other and at mutual rival Sun Microystems, the four mostly agreed with each other: Linux is stable, extensible and high-quality. No brass from the big agencies showed up for their presentation, though, which reflects the tenor of many of the buyers at the show.
"We're an NT shop and we're going to stay that way for the foreseeable future. I don't see us moving from that to Linux or any non-Microsoft OS," said one Social Security official.
Whether those words get eaten remains to be seen, but both Bogart and Rude are upbeat about next year. "Next year, mark my words, they'll have to cross names off the list [of Linux exhibitors]," says Bogart.