Nortel is looking at a Linux desktop for the 40 000 PCs in use at the company, even though Nortel is a close collaborator of Microsoft.
Nortel CIO Steve Bandrowczak, who joined the Canadian telecoms and network equipment vendor last July, said "more and more CIOs are looking at Linux desktop for reasons of TCO" and argued that the technology "is receiving the same level of attention today as when Linux started on servers".
He said CIOs are asking themselves "can it play with our security and our infrastructure, and does it offer an acceptable level of manageability?"
Nortel is Microsoft's closest partner among enterprise networking vendors in what to both of them is a key strategic area, unified communications.
This is the name for technology that enables collaboration platforms like Microsoft's Office Communications Server and IP PBXs from companies such as Nortel to work together, enabling multiple forms of communication between company employees, from IM through e-mail and voice to web and even room-based conferencing.
Nortel and Microsoft are partnered in this area, in what they call the Innovative Communications Alliance (ICA), which involves joint development and go-to-market, as well as the Toronto-based equipment vendor providing UC as a managed service. That Nortel should be looking at Linux on its own desktop machines is therefore an intriguing development because both companies will clearly want to be seen 'eating their own dog food' in terms of using their UC products, both to help improve them and as a showcase of their capabilities.
Microsoft's stance on Linux has undergone changes in recent years.
No longer is the 'L' word banned from conversation in the halls at Redmond, and the company has its well-publicised collaboration with Novell for interoperability of Windows platforms and apps with the SuSE Linux stable of products. Still, 40 000 desktops at Nortel would be a lot of high-profile business to lose to the open source OS.
Bandrowczak said Microsoft has indeed moved on from its erstwhile antagonism toward Linux. "Ten years ago Microsoft did not understand enterprise, but now it does, as can be seen from its UC strategy, the robustness of the current version of SQL Server, and its applications generally, such as its CRM, which we use at Nortel, by the way," he said. "Now they understand enterprise, which means recognising that Linux is here to stay, and interoperability is important, as the requirement is that such technology be transparent to the end user, easy to use, highly available, and user-friendly."
Bandrowczak said about 20% of Nortel's servers are already on Linux, with the rest running mainly Unix, though there is also a mainframe. "Our design strategy is for our software development to be agnostic to the underlying database and OS, in the same way as from a network perspective, we need to be agnostic to underlying transport mechanism, whether wired or wireless, cellular, or WiFi, and to the end device," he said. In terms of development environments, Bandrowczak said Nortel has "a healthy mix of .NET and J2EE, with a lot of our web and UC stuff in .NET while our core business apps and middleware are in J2EE".
He said this explains the importance of Java for Nortel. He also revealed that there are plans to develop a Java client to embed in BlackBerry, Windows, and Windows Mobile devices to enable single sign-on to the company's intranet "regardless of the transportation: WiFi, cellular, Ethernet, or whatever".
And being in Java, it could also go onto Symbian phones, which Bandrowczak said must be supported in Europe and Asia where the mobile OS has gained traction. "My job is to enable productivity, and Symbian is a megatrend in those regions," he said.
Bandrowczak speaks like a true CIO, without religious attachments to particular technologies for his user community, and is also in line with what Nortel is preaching to its enterprise customers, namely that they should be thinking about the higher layers of the stack, choosing their apps and making sure they can run on any infrastructure (OS, database, transportation mechanism, etc.)
Will Nortel actually migrate all those desktops to Linux, however?
Or is its CIO sending a message to Redmond that he seeks more tit-for tat for sticking with Windows?