Red Hat has admitted that corporate users face certain
difficulties when adopting Linux and has pledged to try and help
them overcome these issues.
The open source operating system (OS) distributor's chief
executive Bob Young came clean at the Networld+Interop trade show
in Atlanta at the end of last month. He acknowledged that the pace
of change Linux users were forced to deal with was causing a lot of
them headaches, and was becoming a barrier to others who might
otherwise adopt the environment.
Open source development has numerous advantages, among them the
fact that the kernel of the operating system is free, it is not
proprietary, and it is being constantly improved by gangs of
anoraks working to enhance it.
Well intentioned hassle
But the latter benefit also has its downside, as Young conceded,
because it is hard work for an already busy IT department to keep
up with the steady drip of updated code.
With Microsoft's Windows, for example, staff can expect a
service pack every six months or so, which dumps a load of bug
fixes on them all at once. With Linux, however, it is more hassle,
albeit of a well intentioned nature.
"When we ship Red Hat Linux, we are shipping well over 800
different programs. If you accept that each of these programs
update on average once a year, that is two updates per day that
you, as a system administrator, have to track, study and figure out
whether you need. The downside to innovation is the imposition on
your time," observed Young.
But he has now come up with what he believes is a solution - a
new web-based subscription service called Red Hat Network. The
vendor claims that this will help administrators to deploy and
manage Linux distribution across the enterprise.
The service enables them to manage their updates and customise
preferences for security alerts, which, Young claims, will enhance
system administrators' productivity and improve the security,
reliability and performance of the overall network.
But the truth of the matter is that the complexity of
managing updates and patches is only one of the issues that the
Linux community needs to deal with if it wants to make lasting
friendships in commercial organisations. Linux distributors are
currently finding themselves at a crossroads and are plainly
uncertain which way to turn.
On the one hand, Linux is being touted as a key element of
tomorrow's web devices, where it has a promising future as the
embedded OS of choice. But this isn't necessarily what inventor
Linus Torvalds has spent sleepless nights trying to achieve.
He did - and presumably still does - see Linux as a
Windows-killer. And he will not rest easy in his bed until his baby
can compete at the higher end of the market with Windows 2000,
which is likewise trying to take on other more mature Unix
The goal is to win a place at the heart of the corporate data
centre. But giving Microsoft's embedded OS, Windows CE, a kick up
the pants is the bronze medal when gold was clearly the aim.
Head versus heart
But this aim isn't going to be achieved while Linux's open source
heart is in conflict with its commercial, profit-making head. Clive
Longbottom, an analyst with consultancy Quocirca, said: "Linux
needs to decide soon what it's best at. If it takes on Windows
2000, it will end up as just another generic OS - no better or
worse than any other Unix variant."
The risk is that as the likes of Red Hat and Caldera work on
making Linux a commercial proposition and IBM and Hewlett Packard
try to build up a market for it, there may come a point when the
Linux community protests, saying "Hey, this isn't Linux any more,"
and withdraws its services. The environment would then have to be
renamed and the elements that made it what it is would be lost.
Red Hat may be leading the struggle to provide the OS with a viable
commercial future by introducing initiatives such as its
subscription service. But the service does not so much put Red Hat
ahead of the pack as enable it to play catch-up.
The open source principle is pretty simplistic at a time when
the traditional software market is being forced into ever greater
sophistication to meet the needs of a demanding user community.
As a result, the traditional software industry has come up with
the concept of application service provision, where enterprises pay
for what they use and not up front in a hefty licensing deal.
Customers are also demanding that any product comes with a full
service and support offering.
But this would imply that the Red Hat Network, while an obvious
way forward for a company that has often been criticised for
failing to make enough money, only goes part of the way to match
what others are offering.
So while Linux may be showing some important signs of maturity,
the industry still has some difficult decisions ahead if it wants
to take the OS into the mainstream. But making those decisions may
entail abandoning some of its core ideals.