Lies, Damned Lies & Linux Server Statistics

Matthew McKenzie, Editor in Chief / Community Leader | 6/8/2010 | 15 comments

Matthew McKenzie
Is Windows still the king of the server OS market? Absolutely.

The problem is that Microsoft's kingdom is a heck of a lot smaller than it used to be.

You might have a hard time figuring that out based on some recent coverage of IDC's latest worldwide server market numbers. Over on ZDnet, blogger Mary-Jo Foley sums up the conventional wisdom under the headline, "IDC: Windows Server still rules the server roost." And at Computerworld, Preston Gralla declared this week, "Windows widens lead over Linux in the server market."

Both blogs refer to IDC research showing that Windows Server widened its lead over Linux during the first quarter of 2010. The Linux share of the server market dropped slightly from 20.8 percent to 21.2 percent, while Windows Server's share climbed from 73.9 percent to 75.3 percent.

Peek behind those numbers, however, and you'll find they're a Potemkin village built on quicksand.

IDC bases its OS market-share research on factory shipments. If a server comes pre-installed with a particular operating system, it gets counted. If a server ships without an OS, it doesn't.

Guess which OS benefits from this methodology? If you answered "Windows," give yourself the rest of the day off.

That would be true even if most enterprises had never heard of server virtualization. Quite a few Linux and Unix-like server distros, including Debian, CentOS, Ubuntu, and *BSD, are downloaded for free and installed on bare-metal systems. And in many cases, commercial Linux distros like Red Hat Enterprise Linux and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server are also purchased separately from the hardware used to run them.

Server virtualization muddies the waters even more. Enterprises that free up server capacity through consolidation will, by definition, have to install new OS instances after the fact. Throw in the market impact of new servers running bare-metal hypervisors, and IDC's numbers get even less useful.

How does all of this affect the real server market-share numbers? I have no idea, and anyone who does is a either a psychic or a liar -- or is using different methodology. All I can say for sure is that it's ridiculous to pretend that IDC's statistics provide an accurate or useful view of the market landscape. Today, the company's research is nothing more than a quaint anachronism that quit telling a useful story years ago.

I don't blame IDC for clinging to its methodology. It would be economic suicide for any research firm to admit that its market-share estimates are a bunch of baloney.

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Matthew McKenzie   Lies, Damned Lies & Linux Server Statistics   6/11/2010 4:23:09 PM
Re: that's a serious flaw
So save a small fortune and just walk into a meeting with a thick stack of something -- old email, recipes, whatever -- with the name "Forrester" plastered across the top page.

But when the analyst firm's lawyers call, don't bring my name into it, OK?
The_Phil   Lies, Damned Lies & Linux Server Statistics   6/11/2010 12:59:12 AM
Re: that's a serious flaw
The good 'ol boys with their white papers and industry studies. You have to love the always conflicting results and how they are used to bolster a particular sides' position.

I am convinced that they all work together in a huge board room & keep track of who's in the lead with the competing reports & laugh. The loser pays for the cheese & wine spread at the next board meeting.
Paul Bonner   Lies, Damned Lies & Linux Server Statistics   6/9/2010 5:25:32 PM
Paul Bonner
Re: that's a serious flaw
I suppose. I mostly see analyst reports  used when someone in IT has decided to spend megabucks on some new enterprise marvel and needs supporting evidence to get the contract approved by his /her superiors. And, of course, if the CIO walks in with a supporting Gartner study, the board won't know that Forrester said the exact opposite thing, and the CIO certainly isn't about to tell them. And, of course, it also provides plenty of butt coverage--because if the project goes badly, how could you blame its sponsors if even Gartner or Forrester or IDC said it was a good idea?
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Fredric Paul   Lies, Damned Lies & Linux Server Statistics   6/9/2010 5:24:07 PM
Re: that's a serious flaw
That's one of the problems with Linux and open source -- no one owns it so it has no champions to spend money on it, promote it, cook the books for it, and so on.

To me, it's a constant source of wonder and amazement that Open Source anything has become as popular and important as it has. Speaks to the better part of human nature and the inherent power of the concept.
Matthew McKenzie   Lies, Damned Lies & Linux Server Statistics   6/9/2010 4:12:06 PM
Re: that's a serious flaw
I've often wondered what clients get when they buy a session with a research analyst. I also wonder what motives enterprises have to share information with research analysts. Is there some kind of quid pro quo happening there?

I feel like I should know this stuff, covering the industry for as long as I have. But how a lot of this research gets put together is as much of a mystery to me as it was a decade ago. But that black-box mystique is part of the value-add, isn't it?
Paul Bonner   Lies, Damned Lies & Linux Server Statistics   6/9/2010 11:16:52 AM
Re: that's a serious flaw
All those analyst firms  -- you know the names-- are just selling affirmation. On the back end, they cheerfully prove that the vendor who most highly values their services has the most valuable product, and on the front end, they sell reports to entrenched IT folks (e.g., ones with sufficient clout to pay for the report), affirming all the decisions that the IT buyer has already made. Paid "consults" with one of their analysts are even worse--it's like sitting down with a cheap fortune teller who has nothing but platitudes and an uncanny ability to make whatever you think sound like a really good idea.
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LadyIT   Lies, Damned Lies & Linux Server Statistics   6/9/2010 10:35:19 AM
Re: that's a serious flaw
Shaky numbers at best. It always pays to look at the underlying methodology used to collect and measure statistics, as the numbers don't always tell the true story.

As Matt points out, the boom in virtualization, coupled with the fact that most of the time, Linux is installed after the fact. Most everyone I know that runs Linux bought a Windows box and then promptly wiped it out. I guess this means that the only way to get an accurate measure here would be to poll say the Fortune 1000 and find out what's running their servers - after the initial purchase.
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Matthew McKenzie   Lies, Damned Lies & Linux Server Statistics   6/9/2010 9:35:46 AM
Re: that's a serious flaw
And who pays the kind of money IDC wants to access detailed versions of these reports? Mostly people who already know what they want to hear, I suppose. And while most enterprises don't have a direct need for market-share research, the indirect impact of how these "trends" are reported can shape perceptions.

That's what sorta burns me about most of the news coverage of this stuff. It isn't hard to ask some obvious questions about IDC's methodology -- those questions appear in the comments on these stories all the time -- but it's rarely done.
SaneIT   Lies, Damned Lies & Linux Server Statistics   6/9/2010 9:28:16 AM
Re: that's a serious flaw
90% of the problem with those numbers is that you can't count what you can't see, so they picked something that they could count and use that as the standard.  I can say that personally I'm seeing a lot more Debian and Ubuntu installs out there, more and more admins are seeing the flexibility and are less gun shy about putting a Linux box in the datacenter to handle running network services.
Matthew McKenzie   Lies, Damned Lies & Linux Server Statistics   6/8/2010 9:22:45 PM
Re: that's a serious flaw
@Paul: AFAIK Google uses a tweaked variant of Ubuntu Server LTS (called...wait for it....Goobuntu) for its internal servers. What those other companies use I don't know, although I can't imagine it makes sense in many cases to compile a totally customized kernel -- why not start with Debian or Fedora of whatever and go from there.

But it's plain as day that none of those companies figure in market-share stats, since a lot of them DO build their own server hardware.
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