December 4, 2003

Progeny's plans could make Linux distros interchangeable

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Progeny, which calls itself "The Linux Platform Company," has made a Debian port of Red Hat's Anaconda installer. Progeny is also continuing its work on Discover, an XML-based utility that may revolutionize the way Linux detects hardware and loads kernel modules or other drivers. None of this work is immediately visible to end users, says Progeny Director of Technology John Daily, but these open source projects, and others Progeny is supporting, have the potential to make Linux easier to administer for everyone from high-end enterprise sysadmins to home users who only use their computers for simple office tasks.Some of this goes back to the Linux Standard Base (LSB), a project that hopes to make sure all Linux distributions and other Unix-like systems do some things alike so that admins familiar with one can easily work with another, and software developers only need to package one set of binaries instead of making one set for Red Hat, another for SUSE, one for Mandrake, one for Debian, and so on.

Progeny's vision goes even farther. For example, Daily talks about how they are working toward a single database for all Linux hardware detection. "Now," he says, "if you need to know what kernel module will support a particular piece of hardware, there is no canonical source of information. Lots of people might know, but finding the information can be hard."

We've all seen situations where one distribution easily configured our sound card but flubbed video setup, while another handled sound and video without problems but couldn't deal with our favorite mouse. If Progeny has its way, these inconsistencies will become things of the past; if one distribution can automatically detect and use a piece of hardware, why shouldn't all distributions be able to do it? Why should each distribution publisher be forced to keep a separate hardware database, which is not a cheap proposition? Why not have a central hardware information repository that all distribution publishers contribute to and use?

This idea dovetails neatly with Progeny's Discover project. "We deliberately designed its data format to be extensible," says Daily, "so you could rely on -- for example -- printer data in a file, along with certain other parameters to allow it to configure a printer automatically."

John Daily

Daily says, "All the technologies we're highlighting, with the notable except of Anaconda -- and maybe apt -- the target is not the desktop user, but the people building tools for desktop users." In other words, distribution publishers and others who work with Linux and related *nixes at the platform level, which is the area where Progeny is strongest.

Daily freely admits that a big reason Progeny wants to see more unity among distributions is corporate self-interest;
he says customers often request "a Red Hat-based environment or a Debian environment, but still want to be able to use the best of other distributions." Fewer differences between distributions would make Progeny's work (developing custom Linux platforms for corporate clients) much easier.

How different should different Linux distributions be?

This is the big question. From a user's viewpoint it would be great to have every Linux distribution detect and set up all the same hardware as every other distribution, and it would be just as nice to have another one of Progeny's Holy Grails available: A distribution-independent, packaging method-independent software repository where you could find programs and updates for all Linux software, and install what you need automatically without worrying about whether you need deb or rpm or yum files, but simply click on what you need and have it install and run.

Lindows touts ultra-simple software download and installation as one of its main sales features. Other major distributions are moving in the same direction, but so far all of them are making this kind of functionality available for packages set up for their distribution's users, not for everyone.

Right now, the main differences between distributions are the ease with which they detect and configure hardware; the range of software they offer in binary form, along with how up-to-date they keep their software selection; and how simple they make it to install Linux and keep it updated on your system.

What would happen if most Linux distributions used similar -- or even identical -- installation and update utilities?

Would the major distribution publishers ever let this happen? Would some inevitably try to add proprietary "secret sauce" ingredients to their products? And would their customers accept a move toward proprietary ingredients, or would they abandon distributions full of proprietary add-ons in favor of "standards-compliant" products?

If customers -- especially enterprise-level customers -- demanded a standard Linux base, distribution publishers would be forced to compete solely on the basis of GUI quality and the level of service and support they offered.

This could bring a new -- and exciting -- level of competition to the Linux marketplace.


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