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How Many Linux Users Are There (Really)?

Everyone Uses Linux, No One Uses Linux

  • February 18, 2009
  • By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols
How many Linux users are there really?

It's a darn good question, and there isn't a darn good answer.

In one way, we're all Linux users now.

As Jim Zemlin, the executive director of The Linux Foundation, points out, "I am not joking or trying to be trite, but the answer to this question is: every single person in the modern world every day. Everyone who searches Google, picks up a phone and uses telecommunication infrastructure, watches a new televisions, use a new camera, makes a call on many modern cell phones, trades a stock on a major exchange, watches a weather forecast generated on a supercomputer, logs into Facebook, navigates via air traffic control systems, buys a netbook computer, checks out at a cash register, withdraws cash at an ATM machine, fires up a quick-boot desktop (even those with Windows), or uses one of many medical devices; the list goes on and on."

"It is hard to think of someone in the developed world who doesn't touch Linux every single day. The better question here is who isn't a Linux user," Zemlin concluded.

He's got a point there. If you buy something from Craigslist or keep up with friends on Facebook, you're using Linux. To be exact, you're using Big-IP 9.4.6, which is an embedded high-speed networking system that incorporates Linux. Do you watch videos on YouTube? Linux again. Google? Yes, they run Linux too.

Gartner and IDC Don't Count

By this yard-stick, everyone on the planet who uses the Internet is a Linux user. While certainly true, it is only one way of measuring Linux use. The major analysis firms that track operating system use, Gartner and IDC, focus on the server market. Their numbers 'indicate' that Linux is a powerful player in the server market, but their research doesn't translate well into giving us an actual number of Linux servers.

Gartner, of late, tends to focus on server hardware sales. So, while we know that IBM and HP both sell Linux-powered servers, Gartner's data doesn't easily tell us how many of those systems are shipping running Linux. IDC, on the other hand, tends to look at the overall cash value of server sales. That's valuable information, but, since Linux tends to be the cheapest server operating system offering, this methodology also under-represents Linux's impact on IT.

In both cases, the big two research firms are only looking at server sales. They're not looking at what IT departments are actually running in their server rooms. In my own consulting experience, most of the SMB (small-to-medium sized businesses) use re-purposed x86 desktops and servers to run Linux.

They can do this because Linux is cheap. With Linux, any PC from the last eight-years makes a perfectly acceptable small business file and print server; Web server, VPN (virtual private network) server, etc. etc.

0.83%

How do you measure Linux's low-tech server impact? It's not easy. For every corporate customer running the latest RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux), they are probably a dozen businesses running Fedora or CentOS.

And, then there's the desktop. Here, the numbers get truly fuzzy. We know, without a doubt, that there's are tens of millions of Linux servers in use. But when it comes to the desktop, we just don't know.

It would appear that a good rule of thumb would be the number of user desktops that report they're running Linux to Web server logs. For example, we often cite the percentage of desktop Linux users as being under 1% because Net Applications (http://www.netapplications.com/) Web site survey shows, in its January 2009 survey, that Linux has only 0.83% of the market.

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