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SUSE Turns 20, Ascends to the Cloud

Congratulations to SUSE on celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The company has successfully evolved from a three-man consultancy in Germany that produced one of the first Linux distributions, to an international platform for enterprise computing with a future in cloud computing. VP of Engineering Ralf Flaxa reminisces here about the company’s two decades in business and makes predictions about where it’s headed in the next 20 years.

Linux.com: What’s the significance of 20 years in business?

Ralf Flaxa: The significance comes in our longevity, which even surprises us to a degree. In fact, our first reaction was “Hey, 20 years!” There have been many other distributions that have come and gone – we were one of the first and we’re still here. We view the staying power as very significant.

The essence of the milestone doesn’t only speak to our experience, but in our ability to help develop the overall community of Linux while becoming a leader on the business side. For example, SLES was the first fully-supported enterprise Linux distribution. Building an enterprise-class version of Linux took the first step in the technology’s growth in the business community, which is widely supportive of Linux now. So did early support for mission-critical computing, a key advantage which Linux is now known for within enterprise IT.

We’re proud to have worked on such a game-changing technology; we see ourselves as an example of the technology’s success.

Linux.com: How has SUSE’s history evolved with the popularity of Linux?

Flaxa: As you might know, SUSE started as S.u.S.E – loosely translated in German for “software and system development.” It was primarily a consulting company, with Linux as one of the areas of their emerging business.

But the smartest decision the founders of SUSE made was to believe in Linux early on. It wasn’t popular at the time, but as Linux grew, so did SUSE’s business. While some companies hedged their assets with other open source projects, SUSE bet on Linux – that bet is still paying off. It was the center of our business model.

With Linux at its core, SUSE did a lot to introduce Linux to a larger group of people. Many people don’t remember SUSE as a publishing company, but it issued a book and a CD for people to start using Linux easily. Those days were before the Internet, so SUSE invested much of its resources to help students access and use Linux more easily and effectively. SUSE didn’t just ride the wave – it did a lot to make it more known; more accessible; more usable. As Linux took off, the technology started helping SUSE’s name recognition as well, so I’d say that early support paid off on a number of fronts.

People now think about Linux as an empowered community of developers that promote an open model. With the community in mind, the introduction and growth of openSUSE is important to cite as well. What started as a SUSE-funded project now has the support of 30,000 people around the world. We helped create and support the community whose passion and creativity is what makes Linux so special. It’s one of our proudest accomplishments.

Linux.com: What are some of the biggest milestones SUSE experienced during the first two decades?

Flaxa: The first key milestone was the distribution in the form of CDs in books and magazines. It seems elementary by today’s standards, but it made Linux available for everyone, cheaply and easily.

Another milestone was the ability for graphical, automated installation, so Linux installations could be done graphically and recognize hardware automatically. At that time, the majority of users were very technical, fine with a command-line. They could perform the difficult installations, but it wasn’t until Linux was more usable that it became more popular. SUSE contributed a lot to make this process a reality.

After installation advances came the support by the database vendors. After IBM joined in 2000, we had Oracle and Adabas offer their support. That was huge – once the first peg fell, the others followed.

The investment from IBM in 2000 was also highly important. That was the real support of an industry leader. In that context, SUSE can say we were the first with IBM on the mainframe, which actually became the start of SUSE Linux Enterprise Server.

The acquisition by Novell was another major milestone. It brought SUSE more international exposure. Before, it was more European. Even though SUSE was somewhat international, Novell made it really global.

And very recently, after the Attachmate Group acquired Novell, we've again established SUSE as an independent business unit with a laser focus on the enterprise Linux market and an even stronger commitment to the communities and projects that we are so passionate about.

Linux.com: How has the company’s philosophy changed since 1992?

Flaxa: If you ask the founders themselves, they’ll tell you they never had a company philosophy. But I think they did, whether they knew it or not. The philosophy of SUSE is a culture of open collaboration. SUSE is all about the freedom to access source code, make changes, play around and find new ways to make Linux better. While that philosophy started on a small level in Germany, what’s shifted is that freedom has expanded all over the world; all for the betterment of Linux.

That said, Linux has evolved into a big business. Of course, the founders wanted to make money. Paychecks are involved, which has made SUSE more of a business than its original philosophy. That has certainly changed, but it did show the world you can build a business on Linux. But with all of the business it does, SUSE is an open source-based company. It started with the core value and goal to collaboratively develop quality technology – and it will continue to use those core qualities and goals as the basis for all SUSE does. 

Linux.com: Where do you see SUSE going during the next 20 years?

Flaxa: 20 years is an eternity, but we see a few interesting developments. At the very beginning, when we first met Linus Torvalds, he said one very important thing: it all depends on the applications. He was right. Think about how far we’ve come in terms of applications certified on Linux in the enterprise. Most of the things you need to run a business work on Linux. This would have been unheard of 20 years ago, so anything is possible.

One new frontier for Linux comes in the consumer market. If you look at tablets, smartphones, small devices, the whole UI is changing. The experience is changing. You have a device that accesses the cloud.  You have an app for everything – and thanks to Android, Linux is getting all the apps for the regular user you always needed.

For enterprise Linux and SUSE as a business, we see a new frontier in cloud as well – both the public cloud and the private cloud. SUSE has already had its “eyes in the clouds” by joining and participating in OpenStack. We’ll have a series of innovative technologies stemming from that project coming this year, and we’re placing a great deal of resources in providing and solidifying open source’s place in the cloud-based technology.

You’ll see a lot of Linux in everything we use – from tablets, smartphones, supercomputers, firewalls, even washing machines. 20 years from now, we really will see Linux everywhere. It will be so omnipresent, so visible, that the majority of people won’t even realize that it’s Linux. This will be true for enterprise businesses as well – the infrastructure behind their most demanding and mission critical systems, both in the cloud and in their data center, will be running on Linux. That’s the vision we have, and SUSE will play a major role in that change.

 

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