November 3, 2005

Linux Standard Base approved as international standard

Author: Stephen Feller

An international organization is preparing to publish its approval of the Linux Standard Base (LSB) as a worldwide standard, which could potentially lead to easier migration to and software development for Linux.

The nonprofit Free Standards Group (FSG) announced at the Open Source Business Conference in Boston this week that the International Standardization Organization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) unanimously approved the FSG's Linux Standard Base Core Specification 2.0.1 and is expected to publish the standard in December.

The FSG, which funds and maintains the LSB workgroup, spent most of the last year working toward adoption of a set of software that it hopes developers will include with the Linux kernel, to allow applications to work in a multitude of distributions. The ISO/EIC approved the LSB as a Publicly Available Specification (PAS), and it will continue to be open source and available for free.

Jim Zemlin, executive director of the FSG, said the approval offers proof to the world that Linux is a real companion to Unix systems that use the POSIX standard, and that the largely free, open source operating system is serious and in the mainstream.

"It's very important since many governments and large organizations look to ISO as the world's official standards-setting body," Zemlin said. "When ISO 'blesses' your standard, you basically have agreement from all the parties that really matter."

The ISO, formed as an outgrowth of the 99-year-old IEC in 1946 "to facilitate the international coordination and unification of industrial standards," is made up of a network of the national standards institutes of 156 countries and is coordinated from Geneva, Switzerland, according to the organization's Web site.

Although the ISO has no legal authority, it sets standards for everything from the size of handicap accommodations to technical manufacturing concepts through consensus for the good of people worldwide.

The LSB, according to Zemlin, is at its most basic a uniform set of APIs, libraries, and interoperability standards that if used would allow developers to port software to only one specific operating system, rather than having to rework applications for the plethora of Linux distributions in use worldwide. He said this ease of use could be key to preventing the fragmentation of the Linux market.

"It's death from a thousand cuts -- look at Unix," Zemlin said. "Fragmentation occurred and enabled a competitor to take significant market share. It's one thing for Microsoft to compete with a single vendor like Sun. It's quite another for it to compete with a global ecosystem of vendors and volunteers all united around an international standard."

From the FSG's standpoint, the approval of LSB as a global standard means that individuals, companies, and governments will have a unified program to work with, and as Linux grows in stature and use, the standard will help economic growth more than licenses and patents combined.

Not everyone is happy

Ulrich Drepper, lead contributor and maintainer of the GNU C standard library project Glibc, posted a scathing denouncement of the LSB on September 17 on his blog. His criticisms ranged from issues with the testing of the LSB's code to his perceived lack of effectiveness of professionals dealing with standards. He said the LSB could not be successful until the project "loses the monetary backing" and is kept alive by volunteer developers instead of those "who have everything to lose" because their livelihoods depend on the success of the project.

"I think all this futile," Drepper wrote about his doubts that the LSB will be successful in any way. "Regardless of how much time is sunk into this, there will always be holes big enough to drive a truck through."

Drepper, who did not respond to requests for an interview for this story, suggests to FSG that it "cut its losses" and make no promises to developers that their software will in fact work with the LSB until all the bugs have been worked out it, many of which he refers to catching and reporting himself.

Jeff Licquia, a main Debian developer, responded on his own blog that Drepper was concerned with self-preservation, or at least the preservation of his employer, Red Hat. Drepper suggested replacing the LSB with source specifications and identical binaries to solve compatibility issues.

Licquia questioned Drepper's motives. "He doesn't answer the question of whose binaries those should be, probably because he's happy with the current de facto answer ... Red Hat," Licquia wrote. "No doubt he would prefer a world without competition, but should the rest of us?"

Seeking to provide a benchmark for developers, as well as the forward movement of the various distributions, FSG sees the approval of LSB as a huge step forward for Linux and the identification of a standard basis for those distributions as another way to preserve both competition among developers and to protect the Linux community as a whole.

"This approval really sends the signal that Linux has matured and is a serious alternative for users everywhere," Zemlin said, adding that "it shows the global standards community sees the importance of both Linux and the LSB. There is only one standard for Linux -- this unification makes it an excellent option."

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