October 15, 2002

Linux Expo UK: More corporations embracing Linux

-By Jay Denis -

This year's Linux Expo UK, on October 9 and 10, has left in its wake a very clear message: Linux has penetrated into the corporate sector and is now burrowing its way to the core.

This year's expo had more Big Players than last year, so I'm told, as well as a healthy mix of geeks and suits. Among the Big Players was Sun Microsystems, which made itself the center of attention at every turn. Sun had an over-sized pavilion with several little demo areas surrounding it, inhabited by Sun partners including Sony and the Linux PlayStation. Also waving the flag but not so frantically were IBM, NEC, HP and even Apple.

To counter big business, the Debian group was on hand, selling off copies of Debian 3 to the crowd. There were also a few local Linux and Unix user groups and one small group of Open Source developers demonstrating Rosegarden, a MIDI sequencing program for Linux. Filling in the middle of the road were hardware vendors, mid-range software vendors, solutions vendors and three of the UK's Linux print magazines.

For an event like this, I was surprised at how small it was. Granted, I am an American and events like this in the United States take place in warehouse size facilities with hundreds of vendors and thousands of people attending. There were 60 to 70 booths ranging in size from a single desk with one person at it to the Sun mega-plex with at least 10 people managing it at all times.

The conference was fairly busy for the first morning with people running around to every booth, cleaning them out of freebies. I managed to snag a few myself. Most notable is a black Sun Microsystems polo shirt with the Sun logo and Tux, the penguin, on the front with Suns' new slogan, "Sun Power at Wintel Prices," gracing the back. I can't wait to wear it to work! To some people, freebies are what conferences are all about. Free T-shirts, magazines, demo software, pens, pins and other junk to fill the free shopping bags also handed out at every other booth.

The highlight of the expo was the Great Linux Debate, which I pray is not a defining moment for Linux. I'm only saying this because most of the questions were leading or vague and when one of the panel members did answer a question, they used that time to plug their product or company.

For the first day's debate, Sun got beat up and picked on from every angle, which, in a sick way, was kind of funny to watch. A SuSE representative plainly stated, "I have no idea where Sun wants to go," in regard to Sun's new Linux offering.

Referring to the Red Hat vs. UnitedLinux issue, later on he stated, "We are not in competition [with each other], we are in an inside fight that we have not fought through yet. We need Red Hat to keep anyone from becoming another Microsoft."

The debate moved on to the lack of training and education in the Linux world. At one point during the debate, an audience member who was very worked up about the lack of training stood up in front of the panel and started accusing them of self interest and lack of support of the community.

Both days of the debate were pretty much the same, and moderator Simon Mores, a writer for Computer Weekly, pointed out two things. The first was that at last year's Great Linux Debate, the same issues came up and that not much has been done about it. Secondly, he said that not much in the way of Linux has really changed in the past four years. I beg to differ because four years ago, Linux in the corporate market was a buzzword and at this expo things are happening. Four years ago, Sun treated Linux like the plague and HP wasn't even thinking about shipping Linux servers and at the expo Linux is oozing from both of them.

During the expo I spent a great deal of time talking to vendors about the community, business struggles and other nonsense. The following paragraphs are what I gathered from the various conversations.

Checking out Rosegarden

Rosegarden is a music-editing tool for Linux midi devices. Richard Brown, one of Rosegarden's creators, told me that Rosegarden is made up of four people who have been working together via email and CVS for five to six years. One of the developers lives in France and Richard has only met him once.

Richard said the biggest struggle in developing Rosegarden has been consistent communication among the group and that's it's difficult to work problems out via email. From what I could see of the quick demo, Richard and his team have archived more than an established company could with developers working in the same room. In regard to the future goals of the project he said, "The focus is now on usability and not on how it is built."

I asked Richard his thoughts on the current image of the Linux community and he replied, "Linux needs a more professional image." At this expo, I think Richard's wish may be coming true.

Linux Magazine and writing things down

Linux Magazine originally started in Germany nine years ago and is currently one of the few UK Linux publications. I had a quick chat with editors, Colin Murphy and John Southern, about the state of Linux, the community and a few other random questions.

Colin told me one of the biggest challenges for Linux Magazine and Linux users was writing things down. He was referring to people who go through great pains to get something running on their Linux box but do not think that's it worth telling people about. (A very good point so, write things down and post it on the Internet, people!) He has referred to an article in the current Linux Magazine about keyboard remapping and how the writer didn't think anyone would be interested in what he did.

I asked what made Linux Magazine different from the other Linux Publications and John said that Linux Magazine is more for the advanced Linux user because the newbie areas are pretty well covered. The team has also redesigned the magazine and its accompanying Web site. I asked for Colin's opinion: does the community need a more professional image? He replied, "It's the user's choice," and that the diversity is good as long as the community keeps growing.

Sun vs. Wintel

Sun Microsystems new motto "Sun power at Wintel prices" is both a battle cry and at cheap shot at the 32-bit architecture, at the same time. Think about it, "Sun power" meaning Sun's products are better, and "at Wintel prices," but we'll sell them to you at peasant prices. I must say though they put on one hell of a song and dance at the expo.

I caught up with Simon Tindal, Sun's UK volume business manager, after the first Linux debate for a few questions about Sun and Linux. The first thing I wanted to know was, when did Linux become the answer for Sun? He gave a chuckle and then pointed out that the Cobalt servers are built on Linux and that Sun has just been waiting for the right time to enter the market. Fair enough, but waiting in the darkness to strike is why Sun got so much flack at the debate and why its peers need to keep a close eye on the company. As far as Sun's "we've supported Linux form the beginning" song and dance is concerned, I am actually impressed with what they are trying to accomplish, which is getting Linux onto the desktop, but supporting the OS as well as the hardware.

Sun and the rest of the big players all openly admit that they cannot do this for free, which is behind Sun's attitude of "we'll sell you a low cost Sun computer running our own version of Linux, and we'll even throw in some of our own proprietary tools as well." That's fine, but will these low-cost machines be able to run programs like SunOne Studio, a Java IDE, written in 100% pure Java? "I don't have that information at this time," is all Aaron White, volume business manager could say when asked about this. Oh well. Sun's Linux server is currently available, but the desktop, which well sell in blocks of 100, will not be out until summer 2003.

In total contrast to what Sun is trying to do on the desktop David Gurr, business development manager of SCO, had some comments: "Clients say 'we want Linux,' but what they are really saying is 'we want to replace Microsoft Office.'" He went on to point out that by putting Linux on the desktop, new Linux users are going to tie up resources from the Linux systems administrators. "We don't want our Linux guy teaching people how to use Linux," he said. "Linux on the desktop is not practical. Maybe 10% of desktops will be running Linux in the next five years."

Maybe David should have a chat with Sun because I'm sure they'll have loads to talk about.

IBM's quiet presence

The best-behaved group at the conference was IBM. Its workers did not hold continuous seminars to tell people that they support Linux and hey, look at our new whiz bang gizmo, too. In fact, I only saw a few people handing out IBM CDs compared to the small battalion that Sun had running about the place.

As some may know, IBM first came onto the Linux scene back in 1995 by shipping Apache on its Netfinity servers, which was a big deal, because IBM was one of the biggest companies to even consider Linux back then. Since then, IBM has spent a great deal of time, money and resources nurturing the Linux world.

I caught up with Andy Holies, business development manager of IBM, to get an answer to a burning question. Actually I was fishing for someone to slag off Sun, so I asked, "Now that Sun has released SunLinux does IBM plan on doing the same?" With a chuckle and a big smile Andy said, "We have no plans for a version." Damn, he saw right though my little plan, oh well. I asked about some struggles that IBM has faced over the last year. Yes, I was still fishing. Andy referred to the work IBM did jointly with SuSE to get the German government onto Linux. He said that government organizations move very slowly and that it's been a hard struggle but well worth it. He feels that once this project is complete and working, that other countries will adopt it.

Chatting with the distros

I never got to talk with with theHREF="http://www.suse.co.uk/">SuSE guy from the Linux Debate, but I did talk with one of his cronies. It turns out that SuSE left one of the chief developers to run their booth for a while, and while he had plenty of info about the inner workings of SuSE Linux, he couldn't tell me jack about any of the companies dealing with IBM and the German government. It's probably better that I didn't talk to Malcom, as he was just a bit intimidating with his stern self-confidence and German accent.

I did manage to talk with Phil Hands, Debian GNU/Linux developer. I wasn't too sure about Phil after seeing him at the Linux Debate; he just seemed a little too serious about Open Source to be able to get any info out of him. Well, I was wrong. Phil is a really down-to-earth guy who understands the "need someone to blame" regime of the corporate sector but also firmly believes in Freedom and GPL.

He attributes the slowish adoption of Linux in big business to middle management and the attitude that they don't want to be blamed for choosing Linux over Windows. He says what the corporate sector needs to learn is, "Buy the support from someone but not the software." For Linux to move forward companies need to avoid the "single supplier lock in," which is exactly what every company needs to have branded on the butts of its middle management. Phil said he first started selling support for Linux back in 1993. "The invoice is on my Web site," he added. (http://www.hands.com) Wow! Linux support in 1993!

I had attempted to catch up with all of the members of the panel from Great Linux Debate but I missed out on Nick Vitch, editor of Linux Format, and the representatives from HP. Aside from the conversations and keynotes, I had a great time talking to people and listing to their thoughts and ideas. I enjoyed watching the Great Linux Debate even though it was a bit repetitive and lacked any real resolution. And most of all I am glad that Linux has evolved to where it is today, into the corporate sector. There is still one thing bothering me about the expo, where was Red Hat for all of this?


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