The Linux revolution could come grinding to a halt unless more IT staff are trained in the open-source OS.
Though Linux is gaining ground on Unix and NT as an ebusiness platform, experts believe the failure of mass market training companies to support it will cripple its growth.
The situation threatens businesses which were early adopters of Linux and now have installations which have grown beyond the skills of the person who installed them.
Mike Banahan, managing director of ecommerce consultancy GBDirect, said he expects to see use of Linux increase as more companies embark on ecommerce ventures once their Y2K projects are finished, and then look to install Linux to run it on.
"My guess is that in a year to 18 months you will start to see a squeeze when there is more use of Linux," said Fisher. "The bottleneck is the training companies as they are not investing enough at the moment. While the bespoke training companies have picked up on Linux, the mass market trainers haven't."
According to analysts IDC, Linux represents 17 per cent of servers worldwide, which means it is half as big as Windows NT.
Recruitment consultants claim the biggest demand now is from companies that installed Linux a year or two ago. "There has been a spread in usage of Linux. The companies that installed Linux previously are getting bigger and are looking to recruit more Linux experts," said Michael Wright, senior consultant at recruitment agency Vision IT.
Tony Brennan, a consultant at another agency, Monarch, said the demand for Linux skills is "snowballing", and that "requirements will increase significantly" as Linux continues to evolve from use by enthusiasts to commercial businesses.
According to Dave Fisher, head of development at GBDirect, the use of Linux is now so widespread that "it is becoming difficult to find a sector that isn't employing Linux."
"The MIS director is suddenly discovering that they are using Linux - they hadn't known before because it hadn't fallen over. Corporates are sitting up and taking notice," said Ian Farthing, UK channel manager at Linux vendor Red Hat.
Take the Linux leap now!
Fisher added that the use of Linux has grown dramatically over the last six months and people "definitely should" start specialising in the operating system now. He warned that the people who have the most to fear from the increased use of Linux are not the NT administrators but the Unix professionals that are not expanding their knowledge to include Linux.
"Lots of companies in the technical field with a long tradition in Unix are putting in Linux largely to avoid NT," he added.
But Red Hat's Farthing was more cautious. He doesn't think the time is right just yet for people to specialise in Linux, but concedes that for those already skilled in NT and Unix, Linux is another important "string to the bow".
GBDirect's Fisher explained that while the use of Linux is growing faster than the availability of trained Linux staff, the shortage isn't severe yet as they come from two sources - Unix professionals, and undergraduates using Linux at home. But this looks set to change, as Linux in corporates becomes even more widespread.
Online travel site ebookers.com, which runs its entire business on Linux, has recently recruited new programmers and developers through recruitment agencies. The company's technology director, Dirk Tostmann, said he had found no problem finding good Linux people.
He said that he had recruited Perl experts and indirectly got Linux experts, as the easiest way to learn the application is on a PC running the open-source OS.
"We asked for Perl programmers and didn't expect to get all Linux people, but it's been helpful as that's what ebookers.com runs on."
Keen to learn
GBDirect claimed that there is huge interest among IT professionals wanting to learn Linux. The companies online database of training courses and providers found during November that Linux was the third most popular keyword search after Microsoft and MCSE.
Fisher said while there is substantial interest from NT professionals in learning Linux, the greatest demand for short courses is from Unix people who understand they can learn Linux as another flavour of Unix.
Despite not being an immediate problem, the shortage of Linux experts is starting to push salaries up. According to Vision IT's Wright, wages for skilled Linux staff have increased by as much as 15 per cent recently.
However, he stressed that his clients favour those with several years' hands-on SCO or HP Unix experience and with knowledge of Linux, rather than a graduate Linux aficionado.
It is likely, however, that salaries for Linux experts have yet to reach their peak. Farthing predicts they will first level out as more corporates adopt it and get more people trained. However, he added that as larger companies with more resources implement Linux, wages will increase again.
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