The swift take-up of Linux, the free developer-driven operatinghey might knock down some barriers. But where's the future in a system - albeit a free one - that has no owner, no standards body and no authorised certification? system, caught many off guard. But not a week goes by without a key vendor announcing its support for the platform. Most recently, IBM has thrown its weight behind Linux, announcing an alliance with Red Hat Software to deliver PC systems running Red Hat Linux via its business partners.
But as Linux grows in popularity and the commercial sector becomes more involved in moving it forward, the ethos that has helped it succeed is under pressure. The fact that it has no single owner or authorised certification centre further complicates the situation.
Bill Peterson, research manager at IDC, says: 'The Linux community has faced a number of real and imagined barriers to its acceptance within organisations, one of which is the lack of availability of technical support.'
Many serious shoppers have considered adopting Linux, but turned away because of the support concerns. But Peterson believes the IBM deal and others will break down some of the barriers: 'IBM's support organisation is legendary and IDC believes that with this announcement, the technical support argument against Linux in the enterprise becomes moot.'
Although Linux is part of the open-source software movement, which has plenty of hands turning the development wheel, there is nothing to stop differences creeping in and destroying compatibility. The danger that it could splinter into many slightly different versions is causing business customers to adopt a wary stance.
In an attempt to stop this happening, the Linux Standards Base (LSB) was founded by Dan Quinlan to create rules that keep Linux versions compatible.
It is seen by many as a necessary step to attract developers to write applications for the platform. Ultimately, users don't care about operating systems - they want useful applications - but the standards approach has to be sold to the disparate crowd that makes up the Linux developer community.
Ransom Love, chief executive of Caldera Systems - a key Linux licence shipper and integrator - says Quinlan's work is crucial to the continued success of Linux. 'If a standard isn't set, Linux will go at 150 miles an hour against a commercial brick wall,' he says.
According to Quinlan, the LSB is six months away from releasing its first set of standards, which will consist of a written specification, a set of compliance tests for Linux distributors and a stripped-down version of Linux that will enable developers to test their applications.
Robert Young, chief executive of Red Hat, is also aware of the need for standardisation if Linux is to make the big time: 'If Quinlan is successful, there will be fewer surprises,' he says.
On the other hand, Young says, LSB has made very little progress since its formation in August 1998. The debilitation of such a split is exactly what happened to Unix and let NT romp through the market.
But in the eat or be eaten commercial software world, who is the diner and who is the dinner? Regardless of their freeware origins, Linux and the other so-called free Unix-like systems have become a business issue for resellers and users alike. Resellers could find some deals too hard to make with the weight of a commercial package such as SCO Unix, Solaris or NT bulking out the bottom line. The way to get the business and profit from it may be Linux or one of many Unix clones.
The internet provides one source of ignition for Linux and, indeed, the Unix market. It is almost impossible to surf the Web or send an email without crossing the path of a Linux or Unix system. In fact, the most popular Web server software - Apache - was created under the same software licensing scheme as Linux. The internet was originally created on Unix and is still the most suitable operating system for its complex network tasks. If the Net is where customers want to go, Unix or a Unix-like system is one efficient method of transport.
However, for many students and individuals, Linux has become the Unix of choice. It is starting to turn up in a growing number of businesses, fulfilling some of the same roles as commercial server and workstation packages such as NT and SCO Unix.
Doug Michels, founder and chief executive of SCO, is quick to sound a note of caution: 'Building a business on giving away product and selling support is a novel idea that could work, but it hasn't been proven. How many risks do you need in your business plan?'
SCO does find itself in competition with Linux in certain areas, admits Michels. 'Linux is a good answer for some people who would have been SCO customers. But SCO is enjoying an increase in business from the awareness that there is merit to building business software on open platforms. There are alternatives to Microsoft. We have even considered creating an SCO Linux distribution and putting it on our software CDs so that customers can evaluate them both.'
SCO is without doubt the Intel Unix market leader, accounting for more than 41 per cent of the market and shipping more Unix server software than the next four competitors combined. On the exclusively Intel Unix pie chart, SCO's portion amounts to more than 80 per cent, according to IDC.
Linux, on the other hand, is much less easier to count, according to Michels. 'I am vaguely distrustful of Linux numbers,' he says. 'Anything free is hard to audit because there is no accountable source. I am willing to accept that the Linux installed base has doubled, but what are the real numbers? Three million? Six million? Ten million? It's like the internet head count silliness a few years ago.'
According to Michels, SCO has shipped more than 120,000 free copies of SCO Unix products to students and non-commercial users - about the same number that Red Hat has sold. Ray Anderson, vice president of marketing at SCO, adds: 'In the beginning, going with Linux looks cheaper to technically competent users, but it isn't cheaper in the longer term. But we aren't into an us versus them kind of scenario. We may lose some sales to Linux but overall, the effect is overwhelmingly positive. Programming for Linux is programming for Unix so all things considered, it's a win for us. We built Linux compatibility into UnixWare 7 to provide a tap into the energy of the Linux market. Winning the hearts and minds of the Linux community, in addition to the ISVs that are finding it a compelling addition, is what we are aiming for.'
He points out that Lotus was a big NT shop and is now into Linux and Unix in a big way: 'Most enterprise Domino or Notes sales will deploy on SCO UnixWare even if it is evaluated on Linux.'
According to Anderson, SCO resellers have little to fear - or to gain - from the desertion to Linux: 'Caldera has been trying for two years to get our business partners and low-end customers. It has been targeting our Open Server resellers, taking on former SCO employees, and had zero success. Some of our employees have been headhunted by Red Hat, so obviously it's trying the same tactic.'
However, there are lessons to be learnt from the Linux world that can help businesses in the remorselessly commercial world. SCO seems to be open to the contributions that Linux and the Open Source Software (OSS) movement have on offer. Michels thinks there is good code to be had: 'We already take UnixWare components from the OSS world and are contributing actively to the universal driver technology spearheaded by Intel. Exposing beta code to a large number of developers can provide a meaningful input to quality.'
Equally, he cautions, there are limits: 'A bug hunt may help, but it doesn't mean that software developed under the OSS system is better tested than commercially developed software. I'm not convinced that the enthusiast-based Linux community is tooled up for the boring bits.'
Risk in software development and system integration is a hot topic in the bright light of the year 2000 challenge. Who will guarantee ISVs that some bit of Linux or other OSS software doesn't cut one too many intellectual property corners? Corporate lawyers have nightmares about 10 lines of someone else's code being sold to 10,000 customers. ISVs' embrace of Linux may never get close as a result.
Linus Torvalds developed Linux almost two decades ago while he was at the University of Helsinki in Finland and put his entire student project on the internet for comment and modification. Amazingly, the world's hackers and Unix fiends chipped in to fix problems and extend its capabilities.
The basic Linux code remains in the public domain and is covered by the Free Software Foundation's GNU project general public licence. While Torvalds and others hold copyright to parts of Linux, the terms of its licence require all source code for the software to be publicly available. Enhanced software can then be sold or given away by developers, but they too are required to make their code available.
The catch is that Linux is a lot more than a kernel. Its constellation of utilities now amounts to a couple of hundred megabytes - and climbing.
It's much more convenient to pay a modest fee to Red Hat, Caldera, Slackware or Debian for their CD-Rom bundles of utilities and applications than it is to download it from the Net. One angle for resellers is that although considerable effort has made Linux and other free Unix-alikes easy to set up, it still takes a professional to make a system work - whether as a word processing workstation, Web server or multi-user host.
Challenges still abound in terms of video, keyboard and mouse compatibility.
The X Window System, with its apparently friendly Windows-like graphical user interface, can be unfriendly to novices. Windows is still a user interface benchmark because, for all its platform versatility, Linux is a PC operating system in most commercial cases.
When budgets are tight for a small commercial site, it is easier to slide a Linux onto an order than Unix or NT. Getting small orders and helping businesses make a success of the internet is good business. However, every reseller must weigh up every sales opportunity to make sure all the bases are covered and the door is open for future opportunities. You can't kill the goose that laid the golden egg, but you shouldn't give it away either.
COREL AND UNIX
The Linux standards conundrum may be resolved when a recognised software distributor with well developed marketing knowledge arrives on the scene.
Corel is tipped as the company that could bring it all together. With a more than passing familiarity with direct and channel software sales, plus a modicum of awareness of the internal workings of Linux, Corel is said to be preparing its own Linux distribution.
A Corel Linux would aid standardisation efforts as well as create an extra revenue stream for the large but financially under-performing Canadian company. According to one Corel WordPerfect distributor, the problems are well in hand: 'Corel has sorted itself out and is ready to enter different growth areas. WordPerfect is still a very strong revenue stream, as is its older graphics business.' SCO's Doug Michels is in favour of the Linux development ethos but admits the vendor has problems extending into the commercial world, adding: 'The Darwin approach to software is good, but the theory that a software platform can prosper commercially without a central organisation co-ordinating it and spending real money on development and testing has yet to be proven.'
Dan Kusnetzky, programme director of IDC's operating environments and serverware services, says: 'IDC has found that Linux was the fastest growing server operating environment in 1998, when shipments are considered. HP, IBM, Dell and others are taking this very seriously and are bringing together a mix of products and services to address the needs of their resellers and Linux users.' IDC, unsurprisingly, is silent on the ranking of the value of those Linux shipments to the industry.
Whether a Corel distribution of Linux mends or aggravates the schisms that are developing in Linux remains to be seen. Soon it may be possible to see whether the growth is driving the hype or whether the opposite is true.
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