July 12, 2004

Can Linux Standard Base keep penguin from mutating?

Author: Jay Lyman

Folks in the software industry doubt Linux will suffer from
the same kind of forking and fragmenting that limited Unix and its ISV
support, but the idea may nevertheless be pushed as an offensive against
Linux by Microsoft, which is already running ads in Europe depicting mutant
penguins assembled with other animal parts as if to suggest they are unsure
what they are.p>"I think delaying in doing something on standardization and work on
adhering to the standards that have been established will result in cases
where Linux will be forked," said Bill Claybrook, president of New River Marketing Research and
longtime Linux analyst. "Now is the time that something has to be done. The
crunch hasn't come yet, but when Linux starts making more inroads, Microsoft
is going to kick in big-time on FUD."

That may not be anything new for Linux supporters and defenders, but
Claybrook's call to avoid the forking of Unix goes beyond the Linux Standard Base -- a set of
standards for Linux distributions from the Free Standards Group -- to a single
OS comparable to Windows.

"The real fear I have is if Linux is going to compete with Windows over
the next several years, there has to be a single Linux operating system --
so ISVs don't have to port to so many different distributions," Claybrook
said. "There's a single Windows operating system."

Simple, Not Single

Ted Tso, a member of the Free Standards Group board of directors,
explained that a single, standardized Linux OS may not be feasible and
pointed to unfruitful instances from the past with Unix. Efforts to
source-level programming interfaces -- such as Postable Operating System
Interface (POSIX) and the Single Unix Specification (SUS) -- as well as
attempts to develop a standard reference implementation to unify the
operating system utilized by multiple companies, such as the Open Software
Foundation's OSF/1 operating system, have not worked, according to Tso.

"Unfortunately, past attempts have not been particularly successful in
avoiding fragmentation of the marketplace for Unix systems and providing a
single, healthy ecosystem upon which software vendors could rely," Tso said.
"So why should we believe that Linux Standard Base can succeed when past
efforts have not, at least with respect to the needs of software

Tso said although they did not result in "the Nirvana that ISVs have been
long seeking," the history of past standardization efforts for Unix does
include some success.

"Those standards which focused on source-level compatibility, such as
POSIX, were critical in allowing the development of a vibrant open source
community, both before and after that term was coined," Tso said. "Indeed,
there is no doubt that Linux owes much of its success to the existence of
the POSIX standards. Unfortunately, source-level standards do not provide
compatibility at the binary level, and the requirement to support multiple
binary images significantly increases the software vendor's support

As for OSF/1, Tso said a requirement for a standardized OS or run-time
environment appears to be an obvious way to get a single binary image that
would work everywhere, but OSF/1 turned out to be "a commercial failure,"
Tso said.

"At first glance, it would seem that arranging to have multiple competing
vendors using the exact same set of software to comprise their run-time
environment would solve the compatibility problems, which the ISV community
has been hungering for," he continued. "And technically, this would be true.
However, there are business, social, and political issues that must be

As an example, Tso said many complex decisions about which features or
patches to include must be made when engineering a release. These are not
simple nor technical questions, but rather involve complicated tradeoffs
between support costs, risks of introducing bugs to an otherwise stable
platform, and the benefits of potential increased sales in particular
markets, Tso said.

"How these decisions should and could be made by a hardware vendor or a
Linux distribution company may be very different depending on their support
structure, willingness to take risks, and market focus," Tso said.

Calling Linux Standard Base "a position midway between a source-level
interface standard such as POSIX and a specific run-time implementation such
as OSF/1," Tso said the first-of-its-kind standardization effort specifies
an Application Binary Interface (ABI) and benefits from specifying only the
minimum necessary to assure true application portability -- namely the
binary interfaces.

"Providers of the LSB run-time environment may choose any implementation
they wish, as long as they provide the necessary binary interfaces," Tso
said. "The LSB standardizes that which is necessary for binary application
compatibility, but does not over-constrain the run-time environment. This is
the method to achieve Linux standardization -- an idea whose time has

Competing and complying

The top Linux vendors have historically pledged ideological and material
support for LSB, which is the basis for certification of the latest Linux
releases, but tend to agree that a single Linux OS is not the right

Red Hat -- which certified AS2.1 and RHEL for the LSB specified
architecture and has RHEL3 LSB 1.3-certified on IA-32, IA-64, PPC, s390, and
z-series hardware -- said it fully complies with the latest version of the
LSB spec.

"Red Hat regularly runs the test suites provided by the LSB and submits
distributions for certification," the company said in an email response.
"Red Hat also has representatives in the various LSB-related teleconferences
which work on the next generation of the specification."

Stormy Peters, open source product manager for HP, said her company is a
strong supporter of LSB as evidenced by financial, engineering and other

"For example, HP helped LSB through the process of becoming an
internationally recognized [International Organization for Standardization]
ISO standard," Peters said. "We also actively encourage our distribution
partners to support the evolution of the LSB and the upcoming 2.0 standard
is a perfect example. We are committed to making the LSB a success."

When asked what is needed out of the LSB, Peters said HP is looking for a
standard definition that allows its ISV partners to develop once and run on
all LSB compliant distributions. Peters disagreed that a single Linux
operating system is needed for Linux to remain competitive in the face of
forking fears.

"A single standard is what is needed and LSB does that," Peters said. "A
single distribution is not appropriate in the open source world, where
innovation and enhancement of the code are the hallmark of Linux.
Distributions target different markets and distinguish themselves by
deciding which applications and tools should be included in a full Linux
distribution. A standard is important so that ISVs can develop and test once
and run on any LSB compliant distribution."

Distros really dwindle for business

Open Source Development Labs Lab
Director Tim Witham said the issue of standardizing Linux is a difficult
problem, but one that all parties tend to agree needs consideration. Witham
said since controlling contributions by committee -- as is typically done
proprietary software -- does not fit with open source development, the LSB
is the proper approach.

Witham said he did not think Linux is susceptible to the same kind of
forking that fouled ISV support for Unix.

"I don't think the economic model of Linux will allow the sort of forking
that occurred in Unix," Witham said, referring to the GPL, and a general lack of desire to lock
users into certain Linux versions.

Witham also said that despite wild reports of 200 or 2,000 different
distributions of Linux confusing corporations, there are only a relatively
small number of distributions that are truly significant to IT

"From an end user perspective, that may be different, but to people
deploying (in enterprise), there's really a fairly small number of
distributions that matter," Witham said.

The OSDL lab director, who called LSB "one of those things that has to be
constantly upgraded because of the progress in the community," added that
OSDL works closely with LSB to ensure that efforts are synergized.

"If they've done something, we don't go there," Witham said. "We firmly
believe it's complimentary to what we're doing."


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