February 21, 2001

Linux community: We can play nice with big tech

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -
The headlines practically screamed: "The suits take over Linux!" A handful of media reports before and during LinuxWorld earlier this month played up a community vs. corporate theme, using the trade show as a microcosm of what's happening to the Linux world outside the walls of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

Parts of the Open Source community, especially the free-as-in-beer and as-in-speech crowd, have always regarded corporate types with some suspicion, and this year's LinuxWorld, with its announcements from the likes of IBM, Intel, Hewlett-Packard and other tech heavyweights, could have been a conspiracy theorist's wet dream. Microsoft even sent a spy to check on what all the fuss was about.

Despite the media reports, response from the Open Source community to big tech's interest in Linux has been generally positive. Alex Perry, whose FlightGear booth was in the LinuxWorld .org Pavilion, says it's no surprise that the suits dominated the New York show, because it's intended to be a business-to-business conference.

"The fact that (show organizer) IDG has managed to almost fill the hall with B2B
activity is a marvelous thing, since it suggests that this aspect of the Linux
community has grown a huge amount over the last six months since San Jose," Perry says. "Did you notice that the .org Pavilion has also shifted from being lots of miscellaneous projects to having approximately double the proportion of booths that are specifically targeting enterprise and business infrastructure? That's a promising community development for the future."

Perry says FlightGear booth workers fielded a lot of business-related questions at LinuxWorld. "I noticed that most of the people were interested in how we (as the developer team) were planning to transition the project to a commercial business footing. This is not a negative thing as some have implied; it implies they're being serious with us."

IBM hijacking Linux?

Still, a Reuters article during the week of LinuxWorld quoted one attendee as lamenting the lack of community there. Some sources in the story promoted the potential for Open Source in big business, while others questioned whether the Linux community was motivated enough by money ever to make a huge corporate impact.

The Linux press also raised some concerns. A LinuxPlanet column focused on the question, "Has Linux sold out?" Columnist Brian Proffitt concludes that fears of a corporate takeover are unfounded, but wrote this about his question: "The general feeling was 'no' amongst the corporate folk (big surprise there) and uncomfortable winces from the idealists. This is the beginning of the success the idealists have always wanted, they admit, but they are vaguely uncomfortable with the idea of companies like IBM rolling in to LWE. Big Blue will try to take over Linux, they worry. Compaq is trying to subvert the cause. And God knows what Sun's going to do, they mutter."

But the most hand-wringing recently came, in response to IBM's $1 billion-plus investment in Linux, from a VNUnet story with the headline, "Has IBM hijacked Linux?" The Jan. 19 story quoted a Gartner Group research director, George Weiss, as saying: "The biggest problem IBM has is it that appears to the Linux community that it is trying to take over the Linux momentum and grab what this OS has to offer ... It could appear that one vendor is seizing major opportunities and riding roughshod over the community."

IBM: We just want to contribute

It's no surprise that IBM disputes that assessment, and so does Gartner's rival consultancy Giga Information Group. Giga's Stacey Quandt, in a paper titled, "IBM gets Linux; Gartner Doesn't," called the article "largely sensationalist and designed to provoke controversy."

Quandt wrote: "Gartner's belief that IBM could potentially control Linux ... is a matter
of opinion and interpretation because there is no factual evidence to support Gartner's contention that IBM is poised to gain a stranglehold over the Linux community. In fact, the concept of IBM enabling a stranglehold over the Linux community would be an impossible task even for Big Blue ... The Linux community is composed of
more than 12 million individuals, not a bunch of lemmings that cannot be lead by a single OEM."

Sheila Harnett, technical lead at the Linux Technology Center in the IBM Enterprise Systems Group, makes the same point by saying the "mindshare and control point" of the Linux source base lies with people who've been involved in Linux much longer than IBM has. "IBM couldn't take over Linux if we wanted to, which we don't," Harnett says.

When IBM began talking about Linux internally in late 1998, advocates inside the company convinced the suits that IBM didn't want to create its own Linux distribution. "If we do have functionality we want to see in Linux, we know where we have to go to get it adopted," Harnett says. "We don't want to create a pile of functionality that we then are the sole owners of. We have several proprietary operating systems already, we don't want to try to take over responsibility or the majority of the work involved with that."

Harnett emphasizes that IBM's $1 billion investment in Linux will go for a variety of activities like sponsorships and hardware initiatives, not just its Linux development team. IBM's interaction with the Linux community will go through the Linux Technology Center, so that the company isn't flooding the community with requests, she says.

"Where we see an opportunity to change something, we may bring that discussion up, but we certainly understand we need to work with the owners of the code, to either have that functionality viewed as important as we view it, or concentrate our efforts someplace else, she adds.

So what does IBM get from Linux in exchange for its 10-figure investment? Harnett says IBM's customers began asking about using Linux long before the company started talking about it. IBM would like to add capabilities to Linux over time, she says, but that's in line with what the Linux community wants as well.

"There is already value to be had from a business perspective around Linux," Harnett adds. "We're investing that money given that Linux drives interest and revenue in our customer environments already. But we recognize that we can't just just benefit from Linux by porting our products, and enabling our hardware, we have to give back as well. We can't just stand by and hope that all the things that we'd like to contribute will happen."

Community welcomes corporations, mostly

While there's been grumbling about the big tech companies' new-found interest in Linux, it's not easy to find someone to comment on the record about what evils the big companies might unleash. Most in the community, from newbies to veteran executives at Open Source companies, see this wider acceptance as a step toward Linux creator Linus Torvalds' vision of "world domination."

David McAllister, director of strategic technologies at Egenera, an Internet-infrastructure company using Linux, says there needs to be some give and take between the big companies and the community .

"The bottom line is, if the Linux community chooses to solve the problem, then the corporations need to back off and play by the rules the Linux community has set up," says McAllister, who's evangelized Linux at several companies, including SGI. "The problem is that fair play goes both ways here. If the Linux community doesn't solve a problem that's necessary to make the operating system meet the specific needs of a customer base, then they also need to be able to back off and say, 'if you want to add blah-blah-blah, then go ahead and add blah-blah-blah.' "

So the big corporations can bring new ideas to the community, like using Linux with SGI graphics, which came, not surprisingly, from SGI. ""Corporations have actually done a lot of really nice things for Linux, besides raising the visibility and bringing their customer bases into play," says McAllister, a Linux user since 1995. "They've been able to challenge the Linux community to think about problems that the Linux community had traditionally not thought about."

McAllister has no fear of a big company steamrolling the sharp and opinionated Torvalds. His main concern about all this corporate interest is the oft-repeated fear of forking the Linux code, or splintering, as he calls it. Companies like IBM could create their own Linux with it's own set of functionality, if that's what they wanted, he says.

"There is some risk of [splintering]," he says. "But the risk around that is not whether corporations are involved, but whether the community is willing to work together to solve all the necessary problems."

"Can IBM issue a Linux distribution all of its own.? Absolutely, they can," McAllister adds."Can IBM protect that so no one else can use it? No, they can't. The fact is if they have a better solution, then their solution would make it back into mainstream Linux."

Another concern is that some company that doesn't have the best interest of Linux at heart might get involved, McAllister says, but he hasn't seen that happen yet. "The positive news is that these corporations are giving freely to the community, they're not just taking. This is a win-win scenario, both sides have to give and both sides have to give equivalent value."

What's the alternative?

Bruce Momjian, a member of the PostgreSQL development team, wonders what the alternative is to allowing the big corporations to join the party. In the summer of 1999, when the team starting getting approached by bigger companies, some developers were "freaked out," says Momjian, now vice president of database development at Great Bridge, which offers commercial support and services for PostgreSQL.

"I said, 'what do you want to to do? Do we want to tell them to go away?' " Momjian recalls. The consensus among the team was it didn't make sense to ask the big companies to leave them alone.

Momjian says the corporate investments have allowed some developers to work on Open Source projects full time, and have given the projects more publicity than the teams could've generated on their own. Still, the marriage of the two cultures has taken work. "I've had to do a little more educating at Great Bridge than I'd thought," he says. "I've had to educate them on how Open Source works."

There was also the temptation for Open Source developers to get starry-eyed before tech stocks took a nosedive, he says. "Now that all the dotcoms have collapsed ... we should get back to doing what we should've been doing the in the first place, that is working on software, instead of worrying about stock options."

Chris Cox, an officer in the North Texas Linux Users Group, it's a good sign that big corporations want to take a risk on Linux, because they will point customers in the same direction.

"Customers/consumers tend to be cautious," Cox says. "The good news is that the OS market has really become unstable. Not because of GNU/Linux per se, but mostly due to poor management and execution of the major players. This is causing more decision points for IT. The more decision points, the more likely cautious customers/consumers
are to take risks. Then, after so many have taken the GNU/Linux plunge (and many have already), others will follow for they will perceive GNU/Linux as the safe move."

Cox doesn't see the Linux culture being converted, or perverted, by the corporate culture. "So, are the suits taking over Linux? Hardly. Seems more likely that the humility and freedom presented by free software is 'taking them over,' so to speak. Even though their prime motivation for getting involved was purely profit driven, the actual end affect on their employees will serve them better in the long run.

"I'm not saying that every 'suit' or three-letter company is going to make all of their software source code freely available, but it's probably going to make them think about what real support is all about," Cox adds. "And community developed software is making them think more about real quality. "

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