What About the Linux End Users?

By Bill Claybrook

May 26, 2004

On Monday, Linus Torvalds announced that software developers making contributions to Linux would have to “sign their work” and “vouch for its origin” via a Developer’s Certificate of Origin. Linus claims that the Developer’s Certification of Origin is needed primarily as a trail of documentation that makes developers accountable for the code that they write for Linux. In other words, there is a need to associate code with a contributor.

This announcement is driven primarily by the SCO lawsuit against IBM. However, it is my view that corporate enterprise users would have eventually requested something like this anyway regardless of the SCO lawsuit as Linux moves more and more into the enterprise. It just happened quicker because of the lawsuit. Corporate users do not want the uncertainty of facing IP lawsuits if they use open source software. When they buy a product, they want to know if there is open source software in it, and sometimes they want to know the origin of the software.

Many companies now ship products with open source code in them. It could be Apache bundled with a system, or it could be Linux in large HP printers. I know of one case in which a buyer requested that open source code be removed from the software that he was buying. I think that that is an exception, but some buyers are worried about the SCO lawsuit and accountability for code.

The procedure for adding code to Linux has been relatively informal and on occasion lacking documentation. Many enterprises have become accustomed to this practice because the software that has been produced by open source projects like Linux is of very high quality. Today, the Linux development process generally works as follows. Individual developers own various segments of Linux code. These developers are well known (to the Linux community) and trusted by Linus and other open source developers. A code owner generally controls what new code and functionality are added to the code for which he/she is responsible.

I met with Stuart Cohen in Boston right after he became CEO of OSDL. We talked about the direction that OSDL might be going with respect to Linux. At that time, I suggested that as enterprises began adopting Linux and using it to run mission-critical applications the process for developing Linux would begin to change, primarily by demands from corporate users.

Proprietary software vendors have schedules for releasing software (we know that they don’t always make them), a procedure for collecting features/functionality from their users, they let users know what features will be in the next release before the release is made available, and there is documentation for the release. Corporate users want the same thing for Linux and open source software. Note that I am not suggesting that the way Linux or open source software is developed should be like that of proprietary software. I am only talking about process.

The schedule for Linux is now better advertised than before, the features in a release are available well in advance of the release, and the documentation is better for Linux. But where Linux is still lacking is in the collection of features from end users. By end users, I am talking about companies like the Menasha Corporation, a paper products company in Neenha, Wisconsin with revenue of over $1B. How do they get the features that they want included in Linux. We know from experience that proprietary software companies do not always put the features in a software release that we want, but there is a standard process for requesting them, no matter the size of the user or how influential they are.

If Menasha would like to see feature X in the next release of Linux how do they get it included in the potential feature set? Do they have to have a Linux developer on staff that is “accepted” by the Linux community go forward and lobby for the feature to be included in Linux? Do they work through their Linux distributor, Red Hat in this case, to get them to lobby for their feature? Do they try to find a work group at OSDL that is related to their needs? The answer could be any one of the above or none of the above.

Today, large systems vendors, Linux distributors, some infrastructure ISVs such as Oracle, CA, etc., and a few other Linux developers who are not working at one of the above are the ones that determine the feature sets for new releases of Linux. And these influential groups have their own agendas because in many cases they are competitors. OSDL has done a good job trying to recruit new members from the business ISV and end user communities for its work groups where features can make their way into Linux, but the bulk of the OSDL members, especially those with influence, are not end users or business ISVs.

So who is going to work with end users such as Menasha Corporation, who in 2000 switched from HP-UX to Linux? Or what about Gillette and Staples when they use Linux to run mission-critical applications? They are not computer technology companies and most likely will not have staff members that are insiders with respect to Linux development. If Linux were a proprietary operating system, they would make their requests to the vendor. But who do they make their requests to for Linux and who will listen?

Copyright 2004