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Linux comes to a crossroads

Oct 13, 2000, 14:39 (18 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Guy Matthews)

By Guy Matthews, VNU Net

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 iterations.

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.

Playing catch-up
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.

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