Can business and Linux work together?

Tuesday's feature presentation brings a set of diverse perspectives on a matter of common concern

By Chuck Zelade


In the feature presentation entitled "Working Together: The Linux and Business Communities," moderator Jon "maddog" Hall of Linux International led a discussion about a topic of major concern to the Linux community: What happens when big companies suddenly get involved with Linux? Will it be destroyed or get better? The somewhat irreverent panel of longtime Linux figures drew loud whoops from the large audience as they were introduced: Nick Petreley (LinuxWorld), Donnie Barnes (Red Hat), Larry Augustin (VA Linux), Greg Weiss (DH Brown), and Dave Sifry (Linuxcare).

Maddog kicked off the discussion by having all panel members state ways in which the commercial community can help Linux, and vice versa. Nick Petreley brought up the example of the Mandrake distribution, which is based on Red Hat. "For the first time, to my knowledge, we have this example of an open source product that Red Hat produces, that because it's under the GPL, somebody else ... improved it ... and sold it.... Is there danger of a Microsoft or anyone coming along and taking what Red Hat has ... and making it a little bit better and basically stunting the originator of that process?"

Donnie Barnes replied that Mandrake had asked Red Hat if they had a problem with this, and they do not. Red Hat is actually pleased, because under the GPL, Red Hat can incorporate the improvements. This is an example of the open source model working, and it is the responsibility of companies using the model to help new companies coming into the open source community. Larry Augustin voiced his agreement and added "this is a credit to the (open source) culture." Giving up control, which would drive a traditional company crazy, actually results in better products.

IBM and SGI were given as examples of companies that "get it," although it is easier for them than a software-only company because they have other revenue streams. Open source project examples can be presented to upper management for comparison to the proprietary model to demonstrate how the open source model works.

Dave Sifry moved the discussion on to hardware-component vendors who are traditionally reluctant to open their APIs (application programming interfaces). The software community has responded by "reverse engineering" the interface. Educating the hardware community to open their APIs will help vendors to sell their hardware. Maddog added that this is even more important in today's rapidly changing marketplace. Shorter hardware lifespans mean that rapid software support is necessary to sell product before it goes end-of-life. Also, companies like IBM are demanding nonproprietary hardware and are more willing to change vendors to get it.

Another case of the open source model bringing success is internal-use code. An example that Greg Weiss gave is the Cisco printer system. Opening it prevents maintenance problems when internal developers leave, and this helps reduce maintenance costs. Larry added that since Cisco is not in the printer business, it was easy to convince them to open the source. Use of open source for internal code helps a company develop what it needs in order to operate. Greg cited shared DOS and Windows libraries as an example, and noted that this sharing was accomplished without giving away business code or methods.

Maddog asked Nick what kind of response he had received to his early Linux articles. Nick responded that people thought he was nuts, but that the stuff works (laughter from the audience). The tide really began to turn when he started hearing from college students and military personnel who were "sneaking [Linux] in." And he received firsthand confirmation of this trend when IDG conference management replaced NT with Linux. Most people didn't know about the switch -- except that there were no longer any outages!

Dave noted that oftentimes staff and management start to find out that Linux systems are in use is when projects complete on time; network scans then reveal numerous Linux machines. Nick commented that in such cases a reduced bottom line has to show up, and managers will discover that expenditures are lower.

The panelists were then asked their viewpoints on the worst and best things they could do for Linux in their respective areas. Nick, as a member of the press, stated that the worst is to focus on religious aspects of one OS versus another. Instead, one should focus on reality -- success stories and examples of how money is made.

Donnie felt that what is best for Linux is for distributors to work well together. Fragmentation by infighting (a la UNIX) and bickering will help Linux to die.

Larry, speaking from the hardware perspective, said that the worst thing one could do is not to open hardware specifications; opening them is a positive for Linux.

From the analyst side, Greg stated that talking without understanding or taking the time to understand is the most damaging. One should understand Linux, be honest about it strengths and weaknesses, and be able to explain them.

The support-company perspective from Dave was to avoid providing bad support and over-hyping Linux. One should insure a good first experience in which all involved vendors work together. "And get off your butts and code!" he added.

The house lights were raised for Q&A. The panelists were then upstaged by two jackasses! (Jackass penguins, that is!) "Mel," one of the live penguins that Magic software brought to the expo, was placed in maddog's lap, and he stroked the mascot as one might pet a tribble.

During the short Q&A session one questioner raised the speculation that Microsoft would release its Office suite for Linux. "If they do, we win," Larry responded, and added that Donnie would make it work. The audience applauded.

Dave stated that Linuxcare would support such a move by Microsoft. Nick thought it would be wonderful but that it would happen "when penguins fly." Greg speculated that Microsoft might use FreeBSD instead just to defeat Linux.

Another attendee raised a question concerning fragmentation of the Linux market and what commercial companies can do to prevent it. The panelists responded that working together, collaborating on distribution tweaks to avoid duplication of effort, considering more planning of enhancements, coding to common APIs, and reducing test and support costs of supporting multiple platforms would help.

To make Linux and the open source model a success requires cooperation, collaboration, communication, and balance between rapid development and enhancement planning among Linux distributors and developers. In conclusion, Maddog stated, "The most important thing that a commercial vendor should consider in dealing with Linux is the fact that they do not own the operating system. The Linux community owns the operating system."

About the author
Chuck Zelade has been a computer nerd since 1975, when he decided to improve the computer games he'd been playing. The Unix OS hooked him in 1984 when he was the systems programmer for a Perkin Elmer (nee Interdata) minicomputer. He went on to work for AT&T, CSC, Interactive Systems Corp., and Sun Microsystems, where he was a PC Unix expert. He writes for Global Business Newsletter.

Copyright 1999