April 5, 2004

OSDL CEO: Linux is coming and Portland is its capital

Author: Jay Lyman

The world's single largest official open source organization is headquartered not in Japan or Silicon Valley but in Beaverton, Oregon. It makes sense that open source would do well in the Portland area, which is liberal, socially and environmentally conscious, and serious about world trade. Yet when Stuart Cohen, chief executive officer of the Open Source Development Labs, mentions it to the locals, he often gets a double-take.

"It's OK elsewhere," Cohen told attendees of the InnoTech conference in the Rose City last week, where he gave a keynote address. "Here, everybody's like, 'Why are you here?' The reason we're here is simple. The person responsible for Linux strategy from Intel is here in town. The person responsible for Linux strategy from IBM is here in town. We believe there's an opportunity to take advantage of those vendors and the unique geographic region."

With OSDL data centers in Portland and Yokohama, Japan, the nonprofit, backed by a consortium of Computer Associates, Fujitsu, Hitachi, HP, IBM, Intel, NEC and others also wanted to tap a history of Unix expertise and experience tied to local companies such as Tektronix and Sequent, Cohen said.

"There's a strong base of Unix technology and talent here today that transfers very well to Linux," he said. "The area has more Linux leadership than anywhere else in the world."

Cohen on market trends

Fans of the penguin love to talk about their assault on Windows, but the worldwide growth of Linux and open source is coming at the expense of Unix, according to Cohen.

"Linux is getting success around the world quite frankly because of the transition from Unix," he said. "Unix is in a big decline, and the hardware developed for Unix represents a tremendous opportunity for this industry to transfer to Linux."

Cohen made the business case for Linux, pointing not only to enterprise inroads but also to the huge need by small to medium-sized businesses to get open source services, software development, and customization.

"Don't make the assumption that because the Linux operating system is free, you've got to give it away," Cohen said in his keynote.

He pointed out that there is a tremendous amount of application software skill in the area that could be the base of Linux reinforcement. The OSDL head referred to Novell's recent Brainshare conference, pointing out that it was "all about Linux," but also all about opportunity.

"They need business partners," Cohen said. "It's a great opportunity for businesses here, and not a lot of people are trying to jump on that."

Cohen also said there is opportunity wrapped inside the challenge of cracking the Windows hold on corporations. While defending his own personal use of the Outlook calendar, Cohen said the migration to Linux and open source is like any major platform change, and while it may come faster for Linux, it must still come gradually.

"You're not going to wipe it all out," he said. "You're not going to transition all you've got. You have to figure out how does Linux work in my environment with proprietary code. You don't have to say, 'Throw it all out.' It's not practical. It's not that easy, and that's why it's a great opportunity for us."

The technology trailblazer also noted that even the flattering analyst outlooks for open source are likely missing "a big, big chunk of the way people deploy Linux today" -- Cohen's reference to downloads and copies.

The development process

The OSDL CEO outlined how Linux and other open source software is developed through the lab, which earned "tremendous credibility" and "made sure we were doing our fair share for the development community" by bringing on Linus Torvalds and Andrew Morton last summer.

Cohen said code comes in to 50 subsystem maintainers for various categories such as storage, USB, and others. They then decide when the code fits a problem or need and submit it to the next level -- "Andrew or Linus."

"It's not any different than if a corporation had 100,000 people and a vice president of operating system," Cohen said. "It just so happens they don't all work for the same company. They work on it because they have a passion for it."

Cohen joked that it's not a case of Torvalds checking 100,000 pieces of emailed code per day, any of which might get accepted on the Finnish programmer's good days, tossed out on bad days, and stored up and scrapped after vacations. "There is a very logical process to the way it works," Cohen said.

Still, there are the typical barriers to change when it comes to open source, said Cohen as he stood in front of his notorious "USA Today" flow chart of Linux development.
He said Linux and open source are still struggling with an image problem.

"A lot of people are scared of Linux," he said. "People think it's pixie dust."

Some local business owners are hoping a little of the magic in that pixie dust rubs off on them.

"I'm pleased to see [Cohen] running OSDL and I think it's great for Portland," said Polar Systems CEO Charlie Tragesser. "I hope we really do live up to it because it's a hotbed of Linux activity and known to be a key driver. To have OSDL in town is a coup and we need to capitalize on it."

Tragesser, whose Portland company has been providing network information services for 23 years, said his business is pretty evenly split between Novell and Microsoft.

"We've been interested in expanding our solutions in the Linux area," Tragesser said. "Frankly, I'd like to see half of our business on Linux this year. Novell's foray into this area really pleases me."

Tragesser seemed eager to take advantage of more Linux business, but remained wary about finding the right answers for his customers in Linux and open source apps. "The issues of the applications available today are the biggest challenge," Tragesser said. "We're driven by our customers' needs for solutions. We implement existing applications."

Cooper Stevenson, a managing member with e-commerce hosting and consulting provider GenCom, added that the area also has good, established shipping and trade routes that could be key when considering China, India, and other foreign markets, where Linux is being adopted with a herd mentality. But Stevenson agreed that there is still some reluctance to accept open source in the business world.

"The largest challenge for Linux and open source is perception," he said. "Last year, there was a major lowering of the guard toward open source and Linux, but we still have a long way to go."

No overnight success ahead

Cohen, who credited Linux success to positive first experiences, stressed that market dominance is not going to happen overnight. In response to a question about what zealots have done to help or to hurt the open source movement, Cohen grinned and offered a little bit of philosophy that the only way for Linux and open source to get further into the enterprise is, in some cases, to coexist with other operating systems, including Windows.

"I think there's a practicality that some of the zealots need to see," Cohen said. "You're not going to rip it all out. There's a reality of running a business that I think the zealots need to be aware of."

Cohen added that the breadth of business applications is so wide, the most aggressive proponents of Linux and open source may be missing how mainstream Linux already is to business strategy.

Cohen closed on a note of solidarity, stating that OSDL is continuing to add members and maintain its relationship with myriad other Linux and open source groups. "We work with all of them," he said.

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