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As Microsoft prepared a marketing onslaught for its annual partner conference this week, a pair of little-known Linux vendors were trying to capitalize on frustrations over the software giant’s technology.

The vendors, Xandros and Collax, are targeting their Linux wares at the SMB (small and midsize business) market. Their strategy is to reach those companies through managed services providers.

Xandros and Collax reason that whenever MSPs have to respond to downtime issues, their profit shrinks because they have fixed-fee contracts with their customers, so they would be better off with robust Linux servers that would reduce or eliminate those downtime calls. Windows-based servers, so goes the reasoning, are more prone to downtime.

“You don’t have those problems with Linux,” Stephen Gamble, senior director of channel development at Xandros, told The Channel Insider. “You just let it run and run. It’s the reason enterprises went the Linux route years ago.”

Frustration with Windows-based products, both at the user and organization levels, is nothing new. If it isn’t security issues, it’s erratic operating system behavior or inexplicable error messages. Ever get that persistent phantom “unplugged cable” message that vanishes just as mysteriously as it appears?

After way too many hours of trying to cope with Windows’ quirks, I switched to the Mac for the brunt of my work.

So it doesn’t surprise me in the least that some vendors are finding ways to capitalize on Microsoft-induced frustrations.

Their strategy to home in on the booming managed services market is particularly savvy. Xandros and Collax have figured out something that too many in this industry still don’t quite get: The managed services model is all about uptime. And uptime hinges on predictability and reliability.

Pointer Click here to read more about Xandros’ and Collax’s Linux offerings.

So if these Linux vendors can make the case to solution providers—and ultimately the end users—that Windows-based servers are unreliable while their Linux counterparts guarantee a higher level of stability, Xandros and Collax stand to siphon some business away from the ubiquitous Microsoft.

MSPs model themselves after the “trusted adviser” role, through which they become intimate with the customers’ IT and business needs to the point of being able to reliably predict future technology updates and equipment refreshes.

To become a trusted adviser, the technology you represent, and on which you stake your reputation, had better be reliable. So if the servers and applications your customers use to run their businesses hiccup or stall too often, painting yourself as a trusted adviser would prove daunting, if not impossible.

But it is a Microsoft-centric world, and Xandros and Collax face an uphill struggle. Some proponents would love to see Linux displace Windows, but while open-source technology has made gains, Windows remains very much alive. And I suspect it will remain so even if the next release of the operating system, Vista, is delayed for the next three years.

If anything, Linux has found its place in the enterprise typically in harmonious coexistence with Unix or Windows systems, or both. Of course, Xandros and Collax know this, which is why they are playing up the interoperability between their Unix technology and Windows.

Their message is sure to resonate with some partners and customers. So while Microsoft pushes search technology to fight off Google and introduces its “People Ready” marketing blitz at this week’s partner conference, at least a couple of intrepid Linux vendors are doing all they can to chip away at Microsoft’s dominance in SMB computing environments.

Pedro Pereira is editor of eWEEK Strategic Partner, contributing editor to The Channel Insider and a veteran channel reporter. He can be reached at