March 16, 2004

Immunix stops selling secure Linux OS, concentrates on security appliances

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

According to Immunix COO Frank Rego, his company's decision to stop selling Immunix Linux wasn't a sudden shift but "more of a gradual change. We started in the appliance business with Trend Micro and Websense in the middle of last year." There was a layoff this week, but not a huge one. Rego says the company is now down to 20 employees from a high of about 25. He also says he hopes the company can start turning a profit by the end of 2004 -- but admits that he is an optimist.Immunix Inc. was originally called WireX, and much of the research that went into early development of Immunix Linux was funded by DARPA. The company changed its name in 2003, and no longer receives federal research monies, but survives on a combination of cash generated through product sales and venture capital backing.

The Immunix Linux distribution never became profitable. A big reason for this may have been competition from NSA's Security-Enhanced Linux, which had about the biggest name there is in electronic security behind it and started getting all the Linux "security buzz" almost from the day it was released.

Rego says competition from SELinux made Immunix marketing "a challenge." CTO (and Immunix co-founder) Crispin Cowan sounds a tad bitter when he talks of how much easier Immunix is to install and administer than SELinux. "More people need to try the two of them side by side," he says.

Neither Rego nor Cowan mentions another factor: Commercial Immunix costs $995, with a premium version that includes added support running $1,495, while SELinux is freely downloadable. Not only that, a free version of Immunix is available, too.

The most recent version of the Immunix OS, 7.3, was released in December, 2003, and it looks like it will be the last standalone one released, although Rego says the company will continue to support current users. (The press release in the previous link specifically promises support for Immunix 7.3 through March 2005.)

Immunix now relies on business partners

Immunix currently boasts four well-known commercial solution partners, and DARPA is still listed on the company's partner page. Go to the FAQ page and you can see -- as Rego tells us -- that rather than selling hardware, Immunix is moving toward what they call a "soft appliance," essentially a CD you install on any supported x86 box that makes it an appliance. Obviously, Immunix partner HP will want to sell you hardware, but Trend Micro, Websense, and Bynari may not, since they are, themselves, in the software business.

Rego says there are "new partners in the pipeline," but he can't announce them yet. He talks happily of "selling secure technology to people who are building hardware appliances," so it's a safe bet that at least some of the anticipated new partners are in the hardware business in one way or another, and that Immunix is supplying them with software optimized for their products.

Selling products that only need to work with limited ranges of hardware and with specific software products, instead of a general-use secure Linux distribution, cuts engineering and support needs, which is the reasoning behind the recent layoffs. "If anyone needs some excellent Linux people," Cowan says, "I know four or five who are available." No management or other staff were cut, say both Rego and Cowan. The company is developing new products, moving in a different direction than it was a year ago, but moving nevertheless.

As Rego puts it, "We're just humming along. The security market is good for us. So is the appliance market. We just need to execute."

Then he laughs at himself a bit, because he's fully aware of just how buzzwordy that statement sounds, even though it's an accurate description of where Immunix is today -- and what it needs to do in order to become a profitable, self-sustaining, Linux-based company in the (hopefully not too distant) future.


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