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Selling Unix to Suits:

Talking the talk, so they take the walk


Nicholas Carroll
Posted: October 5, 1999

Further down this page is a brief talk that convinced some corporate types to decide on Unix servers instead of NT. As it happens, it was Linux boxes we were selling them on. So why "Selling Unix ..." instead of "Selling Linux ..."? In part, that’s because I’m not a Linux evangelist. FreeBSD works for me too. I mainly want to avoid NT boxes.

But bear with me for a couple of paragraphs. In my beginning, I wrote a routine or two in Fortran. This was back when 360s ruled the earth, and programming was done in the icy world of the computer room, to the roar of the card reader as it spat code into the compiler. Systems administrators didn’t exist; there were "operators" and programmers. (Operators were kept locked in the frigid core room.) Rookies keyboarded all their code, even borrowed code; good luck getting your hands on a mag tape until you were accepted by the operators.

In that harsh world, code equaled time, a lot of time. Reinventing the wheel was not popular with hackers who had common sense. When you needed a routine, and thought someone else might have already written it, you asked. Some were asked more than others. Some were not asked at all. Nevertheless everyone shared. It was a system that worked.

I did very little with code for some years, then accidentally got back to it designing financial database packages. To my surprise, I’d learned Visual Basic, not something I would admit on a resume.

But the day I needed a parsing routine in, yes ... Visual Basic ... it wasn’t available. Everything was locked up. Send us money, and we’ll send you our useless spaghetti code in binary ... chump. I suddenly understood Richard Stallman’s bitch about the Xerox laser printer that came with no source code. Binaries only? Your mind flames over with wild rage – like a farmer seeing deer eat his crops, like Cain killing Abel.

So here I am, shortly after, developing web sites, sitting in front of a bunch of suits, gently trying to tell them that I will not do business with their company if they want to run a web site on NT servers. And this is what I heard myself saying. It convinced the suits, and they went with a Unix platform. I’ve used it ever since. Perhaps you can use parts for your own talk. Call it GPLd, if you will...

The Talk:

"You can run a web site on NT. Many do. But the cost is high. You pay for a lot of support, and you lose money every two weeks when it crashes. The truth is that Microsoft software isn’t robust enough for the Internet. In fact, the Internet doesn’t run on Microsoft stuff at all; it runs on Unix servers, on Apache server software, on TCP/IP transmission protocols, and on Sendmail – which is how you received your email today.

"The Internet was originally built to survive nuclear war.* In the guts of the Internet, there’s no MS anything. MS isn’t robust enough for the Internet.

"That’s why the Federal Reserve Bank runs on Unix. As one of their bigwigs explained to me: "If we go down for a day, we can recover. If we go down for two days, we think we can recover. If we go down for three days ... no one knows." This man can’t run on NT, not if he wants to sleep at night. Not when 3 trillion dollars could be lost in transfer, never to be found. The Internet has changed everything.... [stare into space for a moment...]

[look back at suits] "It’s not about politics anymore. It’s about what works. A local area network will probably tolerate a couple of crashes a month. The Internet won’t, any more than the Federal Reserve. There’s too much at stake.

"Admittedly, programmers have a lot of reasons to dislike Bill Gates. For one, he was never a code god, never in a league with Wozniak or Ray Ozzie. And he never invented much – certainly not DOS, which he bought from Tim Sullivan.** And he used up a lot of their time with his buggy software. [pause]

"It’s not like we’re mad at Gates anymore. We’re just ... tired. We’re tired of the crashes, the downtime, the bugs, the workarounds. We’re willing to let him have the fifty billion, or whatever it is today. Just take the money and leave for somewhere far away. But please ... go away.

"Nowadays Linux is the hot thing. Frankly, it could have been FreeBSD, or Solaris, or any number of other Unix variants. They all work. And they rarely crash. With Linux, I don’t have to get up at three in the morning to fix the server. You don’t have to stare at the online order queue at 9 a.m. and wonder why there are no orders. And I don’t have to bill you ten thousand bucks a month for maintenance."


I gave this speech honestly. It came from the heart, and it still does. When I give it, I always look very, very, tired. Hell, thinking about NT, I feel tired. Then I look around the table, and the suits look tired too. And they decide on Unix.

You can try to sell them Linux right off, if you want. However, suits aren’t into "cool" much. They like established, accepted, winners. In the Internet, Unix is the winner. Linux is still a flavor coming into its own. If you want to pitch Linux, I think it makes more sense to make the Unix case first, and then pitch the Linux. And nowadays there’s a mighty good clincher, if you’re talking to suits: "Linux support is available everywhere."

* More precisely, survivability was one of the many reasons DOD funded DARPA/ARPAnet. The engineers had their own interests. You could start the story with Paul Baran at RAND, or maybe Babbage. For a brief 35-page summary, see
** Or did I mean Tim Paterson? Well, too late to change that talk. Get it right next time ...



This is one of several white papers written by Nicholas Carroll
© 1999 Hastings Research, Inc. All rights reserved.


Hastings Research specializes in high quality interfaces, web sites, usability, and information architecture.

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