GOSCON 07: An Open Balance

Here at the Government Open Source Conference (GOSCON), Jim Zemlin, Executive Director of the Linux Foundation, gave the opening keynote to a crowd of 200 at–literally–the crack of dawn.

Despite the early hour, his talk was well-received by attendees, which–after the standard “who the heck is the Linux Foundation?” intro–delved into the use of open source in government.

Interestingly, Zemlin told the government IT audience that in the course of adopting new technologies, the fact that any given application is open source should not be the main determining factor.

No, don’t worry, Zemlin hasn’t gone crazy. He’s still pushing Linux and open source technology. But, he told the audience, proper open technology deployment is also about using open standards.

That’s because open source is a method of software development, not business strategy, and not an interoperability requirement. With open standards, interoperability is enabled; with open source, interoperability cannot be assumed. But it has to be a balance, Zemlin added. Standards may profess to be open, only to have royalties attached somewhere within. Conversely, open source software tends to be royalty free.

Open source, Zemlin argued, can over time lead to a digression from standards. He expressed concern that over time, as more and more commercial Linux vendors add little incremental changes to their individual distributions, customers will be left with nearly the same kind of vendor lock-in they would have using a proprietary vendor’s software. No two Linux distros, Zemlin stated, would be the same, citing the case of a Wall Street firm the Linux Foundation was aware of that took 12 months to perform a Linux-to-Linux migration. The time and cost in such an effort demonstrates the problem Linux is facing.

“What we have are functionally similar, but incompatible versions of Linux,” Zemlin said. This, he added, “is the worst place to be if you are government user or developer of Linux.”

Naturally, Zemlin offered up the Linux Standard Base as one of the strongest solutions for this problem. With the LSB’s standards, testing, and certification methods, eventually all Linux distros should be compatible with each other. In fact, he said later, the major Linux vendors were already LSB-compliant.

That comment deserved clarification, since I hear on almost a daily basis complaints about how Vendor X completely defies the LSB. Jay Lyman of The 451 Group and I sat down with Zemlin after the keynote to get the skinny.

Zemlin acknowledges that there are complaints; he hears them, too. The problem as he defines it is that even though a distro is LSB-compliant, the LSB does not go far enough to define a Linux distro as “standard.” While some aspects of Linux are covered, not all of the libraries and applications that make up “Linux” are part of the LSB.

“We need to increase the specs,” Zemlin told us.

Another point of discussion stemmed from an audience member’s question after the keynote about “what is an open standard?” Zemlin demurred a direct answer, because that is something he is personally wrestling with. I followed up and asked him if it wasn’t the Linux Foundation’s place to define an open standard, since no one else seems to have offered up a well-liked definition.

Zemlin replied that is could be the Foundation’s responsibility to define open standards, citing standards expert (and LF legal advisor) Andy Updegrove as a really good source for such an initiative. Or, he said, creating an open standard definition might rest with the Open Source Institute, the organization currently responsible for the Open Source Definition and open source license approval.

Zemlin caught me rolling my eyes, and asked if I had a problem with the OSI. Not at all. They have well established themselves as guardians of the OSD, and I cannot take away anything from the individual intelligences of the OSI members. But, I said to Zemlin, the LF is already involved with enforcing one standard (the LSB) that could be described as open, why not go the rest of the way?

I personally hope they do. Even though the LF deals primarily with Linux-related companies, creating and maintaining an open standard definition would be yet another way Linux software development could effect the greater IT world.