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An old Chinese proverb states, “A sly rabbit will have three openings to its den.” The annotation – to succeed, you must have several alternatives. This is particularly true for one of the IT’s industry’s most-heated and long-standing debates: Linux vs. Windows.

As solution providers, we’ve heard both sides of the debate. Windows is resident at many, if not most, customer locations. It plays well with other Microsoft solutions and doesn’t take an army of in-house IT staff to manage (an important characteristic for our smaller customers). Linux, on the other hand, is free of expensive licensing fees, scalable for IT infrastructure growth and more readily lends itself to future integration activities across disparate operating environments (a critical factor for medium businesses).

Building on decades of dominance as the consumer and small business platform of choice, Windows is undoubtedly the past and present. But where will customer systems, particularly those relied upon by millions of small and medium businesses (SMB), live tomorrow? In an IT environment increasingly reliant on business process integration and multiple operating platforms – such as Windows, Linux, AIX and UNIX – what should we be selling customers?

Before you answer, consider that Linux continues to be the fastest growing server operating system in the world (according to IDC). It’s primary market drivers are customer pain points with Windows – Linux is a low cost alternative to proprietary licensing fees and easier to integrate across multiple architectures. Also, keep in mind that more than half of all SMB customers are running multiple computing environments.

For most IT providers, and to borrow freely from yet another proverb, the answer is relatively simple – every building needs Windows, but don’t build the entire house out of glass. If you do, the stones (security patches, integration issues) may come flying. Although Windows will continue to dominate many segments of the market, Linux has evolved from a niche player into a viable alternative for many companies, even smaller SMBs.

If you’re predominantly a Windows shop, continue selling Windows but investigate Linux as a customer alternative. By adding more choices, you can drive incremental revenue from a wider array of customers while expanding opportunities in your existing accounts. This is particularly important for industries such as the government space, where each day we read about another organization migrating to Linux. Someone is going to sell to these customers – it may as well be you.

In the end, it’s all about choice. Choice not only for your customers but also for you as a profitable, flexible solution provider. And in today’s rapidly changing IT environment, the tortoise can still win if the hare’s only path is blocked.

Terri Kershner is channel manager at Haverstick Consulting. Prior to joining Haverstick Consulting, she worked as the Director of Partner Relations at Eviciti Corp., a mid-west based Internet consultancy and Web integrator.