I've reported in Windows IT Pro UPDATE several times over the years about Linux and its potential to unseat Windows Server as the most used enterprise OS. As a general rule, each January seems to bring a collection of "This Will Be the Year of Linux" stories, typically from analysts who've been bowled over by the Linux hype. To be fair, I've always assumed that Linux and Windows would some day run neck-and-neck in the server world, with Linux's perceived security, cost, and reliability advantages as the major reasons. Also, the past few years have been tough on Microsoft, as the company has suffered through a mind-boggling series of security snafus.

The Linux hype has just one little problem. Despite steady improvements over the past several years and the support of major IT companies such as IBM, Novell, and even Sun Microsystems, Linux seems stuck in a perpetual holding pattern, unable to eat away at Microsoft's server market share. And as the PC industry comes out of an economic recession and enterprises resume technology spending, it's interesting to note that Microsoft solutions, not open-source solutions such as Linux, are making the biggest gains.

Case in point: In its most recent quarterly earnings announcement last week, Microsoft once again beat forecasts and set an earnings record. Record earnings happen so regularly at Microsoft now that it's almost not worth mentioning. But key to the company's success, interestingly, is its Server and Tools division, which is responsible for such products as Windows Server 2003, Microsoft Exchange Server 2003, and Microsoft SQL Server 2000. The Server and Tools division made revenues of $2.8 billion in the quarter ending December 31, 2004, the same amount of money as the Information Worker division, which sells the Microsoft Office cash cow, made. Indeed, Server and Tools almost edged out Microsoft's other cash cow, the Windows Client division, which earned $3.2 billion.

Those results are amazing. Server and Tools grew more than 18 percent year-over-year, compared with flat or single-digit growth for Windows Client and Information Worker. SQL Server growth topped 25 percent. And Exchange 2003 is off to the fastest start of any Microsoft server product. These figures indicate two things: First, the IT industry is spending money again. Second, Microsoft's server products are kicking butt, and they're doing so at a point in time in which all the core products--Windows Server, Exchange, and SQL Server--are fairly mature. And because both Windows Server and SQL Server will see major updates this year--Windows 2003 Release 2 (R2) and SQL Server 2005, respectively--we might expect the upgrade treadmill to keep revenues rolling for quite a while.

"Our server business has a track record like the \[New England\] Patriots in the NFL playoffs," Microsoft chief financial officer (CFO) John Connors said, according to a report by Todd Bishop of the "Seattle Post Intelligencer." The comparison was carefully selected, I think. The Patriots, which have advanced to the Super Bowl in three of the last four years, are seen as a modern sports dynasty and widely respected for their leadership and team-oriented attitude. Microsoft would like to see its server products as well-respected as the Patriots are and would like to foster the notion that, although each individual server has certain strengths, they work together in such a way that the whole is more valuable to customers than the individual parts.

Some key challenges will still bedevil Microsoft as it attempts to fight back against the Linux threat, although recent history suggests the company might have finally latched onto a winning strategy. First, Microsoft must counter the perception that Linux is more secure than Windows. We're just starting to see some people come around to the notion that a largely untested solution such as Linux can be as insecure or more insecure than Windows, given improper configuration.

Second, Microsoft must prevent an upswing in support for Linux and other open-source solutions in world, regional, and local governments. In some cases, Microsoft has won government contracts by sweetening deals financially. But more often than not, fear of moving to an unknown and unproven system has kept many governments firmly in the Windows camp. And widely publicized Linux conversions--such as the one in Munich, Germany--have predictably run into problems. More important, they still represent a small portion of the overall worldwide government IT market.

Third, Microsoft should continue pushing its integration approach, which is truly a huge competitive advantage. Turnkey products such as Windows Small Business Server (SBS) 2003 and the awesome services industry built around it are unparalleled in the open-source world and will likely continue to be so for some time. Although it's interesting to make product-to-product comparisons--such as Windows 2003 versus Red Hat Enterprise Linux--few customers think in such fine-grained ways. Enterprises want solutions. And I think this is an area in which Microsoft comes out on top.

Fourth, I think Microsoft has finally won the battle over cost. Depending on whom you talk to, Linux solutions are cheaper or as expensive as Windows-based solutions. That comparison doesn't resonate very loudly with IT administrators who are already familiar with Windows and would dearly miss functionality and compatibility if they left the platform. Even if some Windows solutions are a bit more expensive than Linux-based alternatives, the benefits of Windows often outweigh what is essentially a small price differential, spread out over time.

So what do you think? Is Linux the next big thing, or will it simply snag a few key niche markets like most of Microsoft's past competitors have?