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VNU Net: Raising the Linux standard

May 17, 2000, 21:33 (3 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Paul Bray)

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By Paul Bray, VNU Net

On the face of it, the last thing open source software seems to need is another standards body. Linux, by far the major player in the sector, already has several standards-setters.

The core, or 'kernel', of Linux is controlled by its creator, Linus Torvalds, and a small committee. The Linux Professional Institute is working on training and certification standards. An Open Hardware Certification Program is looking at plug and play-style hardware compatibility and being a version of Unix, Linux is ultimately based on Posix standards anyway.

Yet the Linux world has reacted with cautious optimism to the launch on 8 May of the Free Standards Group (FSG) (www.freestandards.org).

In some ways, the FSG is simply a rationalisation, being an amalgamation of the Linux Standard Base (LSB) (www.linuxbase.org) and the Linux Internationalization Initiative (www.li18nux.net). The LSB was formed in 1998 to increase compatibility between the various distributions of Linux and to enable software applications to run on any compliant Linux system.

And this, in essence, will be the mandate of the FSG, but on a sounder commercial and legal footing. The group will also be able to work with other open source operating systems, should any serious candidates emerge.

Dan Quinlan, who chairs the FSG and the LSB, says: "The LSB and Li18nux were operating as unincorporated organisations, which is not ideal. There were potential problems with legal liability, no way to accept and distribute funding and no entity to hold copyrights."

So far, so good, says the Linux industry. John Winters, proprietor of specialist reseller Linux Emporium, explains: "The issue that needs to be addressed is that users buy a piece of software and it runs. That's about it, really."

Although some applications and tools run on any variant of Linux, others are developed for a specific "distribution" or the implementation and associated software supplied by the main software developers such as Red Hat, SuSe and Caldera.

But universal standards could discourage this in favour of a more open approach by giving software developers a firm benchmark against which to test their software. And for many, Linux standards are not yet an issue anyway.

Andy Butler, a research director at Gartner, says: "I don't think people are that bothered about standards."

Lowering the standards
Research by Gartner into the main disincentives to the take-up of Linux shows standards a long fourth behind skills shortages, support issues and lack of applications. But as Linux matures, this may change.

Colin Tenwick, UK managing director of Red Hat, one of the FSG's backers, says: "One of the big concerns voiced by a lot of potential users is the risk of fragmentation. As the distributions continue to advance and develop and as the platform spreads, there will be more requirement for some form of consistency, for example in large-scale or embedded systems."

It also appears that corporates will not be prepared to adopt Linux to run major applications without decent infrastructure tools. "Corporates want network management and storage management," says Butler. "The FSG could make it easier for these to come about, although it won't happen overnight."

So it would seem that standards bodies need to tread carefully in terms of what they codify, and what they leave to individual distributors because many Linux kernel developers are academics and enthusiasts who do it for love.

But it is commercial companies such as Red Hat, SuSe and the rest who must provide support, consultancy, systems integration and all the other services that will persuade businesses that Linux is a viable option. The more software there is in the public domain, the less scope there is for these guys to make a living wage.

This, in part, is what led to the 'Balkanisation' of Unix in the 1980s, as vendors deliberately built in proprietary extras to make their offerings attractive enough to buy. "As long as the software developers can earn some money writing applications with proprietary elements, it will provide sufficient incentive to keep the core operating system open source," says Michael Trup, managing director of Linux distributor Interactive Ideas.

If the FSG's standards can create the right environment for this to occur, it will have succeeded. But in such a fast-moving area as Linux, where new versions of the kernel appear every few months, there are concerns that the creation of formal standards will cause delays.

"Any standards body tends to have a slowing-down effect," says Tenwick. "The challenge is to ensure that they're looking at future standards and not trying to set in concrete something that's already past."

This could be achieved, believe observers, as long as the FSG acts like a referee - ratifying and codifying the most popular de facto standards - and not like a grand strategist, dreaming up new standards in the committee room.

"The foundation of open source software is taking the standards that already exist," says Eddie Bleasdale, director of netproject, a user group for distributed computing. "We don't have time to go round developing new standards."

Growing pains
Being a rubber stamp - or, more charitably, a seal of approval - may not sound like a starring role. But the FSG could play a crucial supporting part in bringing Linux to maturity.

"The Linux market needs to consolidate," says Butler. "As in any exploding area, there are far too many players. The more consistent their offerings become, the easier it will be to merge and form commercially viable businesses."

On the big question of whether Linux can retain its collaborative, open source structure while maturing into a commercially viable operating system, the jury is still out.

"The big enemy is still Microsoft, in that that's where the market share is to be taken," says Martin Petersen, technical director of specialist services company LinuxIT. "There is a polarisation in the different Linux products, but it's too early to see whether this will continue."

But at least by committing finance and manpower to a body such as the FSG, the Linux industry is finally putting its money where its mouth is.

"Anything which helps get Linux more standardised is good, and the involvement of the major players is welcome," says Petersen. "The bigger players putting manpower and money behind the FSG could push Linux into the next stage of its development."

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