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VNUnet: Linux future bright, but still black and white

Mar 10, 2000, 20:08 (3 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Jason Compton)

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With dramatic flair, many hailed 1999 as the Year of Linux. Concern about Microsoft's business practices and release dates reached an all-time high, and according to preliminary data from IDC, Linux was responsible for 25 per cent of all new server installs.

But it's clear that the story of Linux is only just beginning. The question of what the operating system will be when it grows up is still very unclear.

The enthusiasm for substituting Linux for Windows on every home and rank-and-file desktop could die down. After all, not even Corel, making its biggest push so far for the consumer market with its easy to install Corel Linux, has been able to work around issues such as the need to install some Linux software as root, or requiring unmount or eject commands for CDs. That still leaves Linux's core strength: it does what most people expect Unix to do, at a much lower cost.

But what is the role of Unix in the post-Linux and post-Windows 2000 world? Sun is effectively giving away Solaris 8 site licences for about £50 through its Solaris binary licence programme (you pay $75 (£46) plus shipping for a 'media kit' and the software is ostensibly free), challenging Linux's comfortable, low-cos, 'one-size-fits-all' status.

Linux may score an unqualified victory. With projects such as KDE or Gnome, and the people at Corel working to give Linux a friendly, easily grasped front end, Linux could conquer the server, workstation and desktop.

Microsoft has been trying - and failing - to achieve this aim for the better part of a decade, ever since Windows NT 3.5 hit the shelves. Its surrender on the Windows 2000 consumer front has pushed its plans back even further. But Linux has yet to attract the sort of 'killer apps' for the workstation and desktop that it enjoys on the server side - namely, internet service providing and web-related application hosting.

The business front
When Linux first started to make serious inroads into corporate IT, many of its supporters worried that the commercial Unix vendors would act to crush it in a variety of unfriendly ways. One high level executive at a leading Unix house boasted privately that if he brought his company's sales and reseller organisations to bear on the Linux market, they would 'smoke them'.

But the traditional Unix vendors have come to praise Linux, not bury it. Key Unix developers are buying stakes in any Linux company they can find, with Santa Cruz Operation leading the pack. As Silicon Graphics (SGI) falls to pieces, Linux has become its last possible saviour. Rivals are even teaming up on Linux projects - traditional Unix rivals Hewlett Packard, SGI and IBM are all participating in the Trillian Project [see below]. And piece by piece, the key proprietary Unix technologies, such as IBM's Journalled File System and SGI's XFS, are being moved to Linux.

Thin client factor
Reality, as it often does, is likely to play out somewhere in the middle ground. Sooner or later, some mid-tier manufacturer will be tempted by the prospect of shipping a system with a free operating system, office suite, and browser/email combination for the office market.

If you still believe in the thin client, Linux is now a top choice for a base operating system, although concerns over AOL's inability to keep its Netscape browser up to date are starting to look justified.

Consolidation in the Linux camp could ultimately work in its favour. With companies such as IBM shipping both AIX and Linux, and Unix vendors looking to cut costs and maximise their competitive advantage, Linux could be the beneficiary of even more Unix expertise.

Corel/Inprise input
Perhaps the biggest question concerning the future of Linux is: what do you do when open source developers become millionaires?

Corel has made public its intentions following the announcement of its plans to acquire development tools giant Inprise/Borland in a stock deal valued at over £1.5bn. Work has already begun on porting the array of Borland development tools to the platform.

Inprise/Borland president Mike Fuller, in line to become chairman of the merged company, spoke of the pair's "shared vision to lead in the development of Linux and other emerging technologies", an indication of just how far these traditionally Dos/Windows focused companies have come in just a few years. Fuller also highlighted the goal of moving the estimated 55 million past and present Corel and Borland customers to Linux.

VA Linux eats up Freshmeat
Andover.net operates a number of popular web news and discussion sites for computer enthusiasts and developers, including the indispensable Linux destinations Slashdot and Freshmeat. It beat VA Linux, a Californian Linux hardware and services company, to the IPO gate by just one day. But VA has money to spend and has announced plans to buy the portal operations company.

The merger will be worth more than $1bn and gives VA control of some of the most powerful domains in the Linux community: in addition to Andover's Slashdot and Freshmeat, VA already owns Sourceforge.net, Themes.org, and the all-important Linux.com.

UPDATE: Trillian Linux beta released
You will need an Intel Itanium simulator to do anything useful with it, but the source code for an early beta edition of Trillian Linux was released this month, after less than a year in development. Trillian was the first third-party operating system demonstrated to run on early simulations of Intel's upcoming 64bit CPU architecture.

The 64bit flavour of Linux was built by a committee of the top names in Unix and Linux development: Caldera, Cern, HP, IBM, Intel, Cygnus/Red Hat, SGI, SuSE, TurboLinux and VA Linux.

Their initial accomplishment is impressive. But the developers still have a lot of work ahead of them. Backwards compatibility with 32bit Linux applications remains a top priority but is far from reality, and Trillian's SMP functionality is currently unstable.

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