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Linuxcare--'at the Center of (the) Linux (Revolution)'

Dec 15, 1999, 08:36 (0 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by John Wolley)

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by John Wolley, Linux Today Silicon Valley correspondent

SAN FRANCISCO, California, December 14, 1999 - Linuxcare held a news conference today to announce their second round of funding and their ambitious plans to use the additional $US32.5 million to extend the breadth and depth of their Linux support services. Fernand Sarrat, president and CEO, explained Linuxcare's goal: to "provide breakthrough customer services for enterprise Linux environments". Put another way, he wants Linuxcare to "Do for Linux tech support what Dell did for PCs"--to make it "top-notch service, very affordable, and very scalable".

"Not Your Mother's Service Company"
As Sarrat pointed out early on, Linuxcare is the only company that makes its money soley off of Linux "tech support". But if you are used to thinking of tech support strictly in terms of people answering your questions over the phone (or via email or a newsgroup), Sarrat's outline of nine major services that Linuxcare is now providing, or is gearing up to provide, is a real eye-opener--it includes:

  • application porting
  • device driver development
  • custom Linux distributions and applications
  • Linux security audits
  • Open Source strategy consulting
  • network management
  • performance optimization
  • parallel computing and clustering
  • Web and email server offerings
These services are provided not only to true end users, but to corporate IT departments, ISPs, ASPs (application service providers), and independent developers. Services provided to true end users are usually paid for by a third party with an interest in seeing that end user support is available, as is the case with StarOffice--Sun is paying Linuxcare to provide the support at no cost to the end users. (Linuxcare is currently gearing up to support StarPortal, the web-based version of StarOffice.)

Using the Technology to the Max
A key part of Linuxcare's plans to provide very high quality service and make it very affordable is use of the Internet and Open Source tools to provide support remotely. Pat Lambs, Linuxcare VP of service solutions, described how installation, configuration/tuning, trouble-shooting, and proactive patch installation can all be handled remotely in all but the most complicated situations. If the customer desires it, the latest patches, especially those related to security, can automatically be applied remotely by Linuxcare.

Some long-time members of the Open Source community might chafe at the idea that customers wouldn't take the time to be fully informed about patches that become available and make their own decisions about which ones to apply and when, but apparently there are a lot of customers who want to delegate this responsibility and are willing to pay for the service. The beauty of the Open Source model is, after all, that it puts choices like this in the customer's hands.

Acquisitions
The second round funding is helping to make possible three Linuxcare acquisitions:

  • The Puffin Group, based in Ottawa, has been helping Hewlett Packard port Linux to its PA/RISC computers (ZDNet 3/99) and has sponsored the Open Source Writer's Group (Linux Today 8/99). Linuxcare plans to draw heavily on Puffin's porting expertise.
  • Cheek Consulting (LinuxPR 9/99), developers of the Linux Knowledge Base CD. They will be beefing up the "self-service database access" that Linuxcare provides.
  • PROSA, based in Italy, has a Linux distro based on Debian (LWN 2/99). Sarrat says that PROSA will help Linuxcare service the embedded space.

New Talent on Board
Of interest to the Linux community are the folks who have joined Linuxcare recently. The following were listed by Sarrat as new talent at Linuxcare--quotes are from bio's on the Linuxcare website:

  • Rusty Russell "wrote, maintains, and develops the Linux kernel firewalling code... lives in Australia. ...other contributions include g++ hacks, the Kernel hacking HOWTO, a compressed read-only loopback block device"
  • Christopher Beard "founded The Puffin Group in September 1998 and served as its president and CEO... has contributed code to the Linux kernel... is cofounder of the project to port Linux to Hewlett-Packard's PA-RISC family of high-end UNIX servers."
  • Alex deVries "contributed to the Linux for SGI Indy project, and produced the first Linux distribution for SGI called Rough Cuts, shipped by Red Hat in 1998... contributed to the Red Hat Package Manager and cofounded the project to port Linux to Hewlett-Packard's PA-RISC line of computers
  • Stephen Rothwell "came to Linuxcare from NEC Australia" and, according to Sarrat, is an expert in "power management", i.e., Linux on laptops!
  • Phil Schwan "most recently... has been working closely with Dr. Peter Braam of Carnegie-Mellon University on the design and implementation of Intermezzo, a distributed file system for Linux... has also worked on the optimization of the hoser ftp server."
  • Matthew Wilcox "has contributed to GNU binutils, GNU texinfo, the Linux kernel, glibc, and a number of other Open Source projects, including an NFS server and an ext2 file-system reader. ...is working on the project to port Linux to Hewlett-Packard's PA-RISC line of computers."
  • Rasmus Lerdorf, who Sarrat credited with writing PHP, and coming to Linuxcare from Apache, is apparently so new to Linuxcare that he's not yet listed on the website.

A "Very High End" Linux Distro
In the "wish there was more to report" category--Sarrat mentioned in passing that Linuxcare is working with a vendor on a "very high end" Linux distribution. When asked if he could say more about it, he would only add that, "It's with a systems vendor" vs. a chip vendor. Apparently Linuxcare is assisting in the development of this distro; the "systems vendor" will handle distribution.

Expanded Applications Support, Major Customers Signed
Linuxcare never was "just Linux", in that they have been prepared to deal with the heterogeneous environment into which Linux is deployed from the beginning. But the range of Linux applications that Linuxcare supports is steadily expanding, as the range of applications available on Linux expands. Linuxcare now supports "all major relational databases that have been ported to the Linux platform... Apache, Sendmail, and Samba... IBM's WebSphere, SecureWay and VisualAge ...and end-user support for VMWare and Sun Microsystem's StarOffice." Major customers signed that were announced today include Informix and Amdahl. See the press releases under "related stories" below for more details.

What a Difference a Year Makes!
What struck me as I was listening to the Linuxcare announcements was the contrast with the world as it was just a year ago. One year back, in mid-December, 1998, a few big companies were just beginning to get involved with Linux, but the business world in general was still stuck on, "how can you make money by giving away software?" The Open Source business models outlined by Eric Raymond in the Cathedral and the Bazaar were still largely theoretical. Linux IPOs weren't even on the horizon.

The Open Source development model wasn't well understood either, outside of the Open Source community. And on both sides of the "fence" that separated us, there was some doubt that the Open Source methodology could work with commercial businesses.

One year later, Fernand Sarrat didn't have to spend a minute explaining how Linuxcare can make money with an Open Source business model--all he talked about was how Linuxcare is prepared to do it better than any other company that's offering Linux services. It seems like the financial world not only understands the Open Source business models, but is firmly convinced of their long-term financial viability. This is an astonishing change to have occurred in only one year's time. In my view, this is what has made possible the record-breaking Linux IPOs of recent weeks.

Linuxcare's motto is "At the center of Linux". Their success in demonstrating the feasibility of Open Source business models has put them squarely at the center of the Linux revolution.

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