May 24, 2003

The worst-case scenario

- by Mark McGrew -

Three years ago, I warned of
an attempt by Big Software Companies to insinuate their control into your
life, using your computer as their "foot in the door." Well, a lot has changed. Of the three players I named (IBM, AT&T, and Microsoft) only one remains a credible threat to Linux users: Microsoft, with SCO as its lackey.

I don't want to indulge in a legal analysis of the SCO complaint. Far better minds than mine are already doing that. However, I do want to consider a ghastly possibility: What if SCO wins the case?

I'm not talking about their being proven right. Their complaint has more holes per kilogram than Swiss cheese. However, the dictates of common sense rarely have anything to do with a legal outcome, and a court victory for SCO is entirely possible. Since only a fool fails to take sensible precautions, let's ask the sensible question: How can Linux users live in a world in which Linux has been ruled in violation of SCO's copyrights?

The best-case situation after a SCO victory would be a quick purging and replacement of the violating code. From the sysadmin's point of view, it would then be a simple matter of patch/compile/install/LILO. This may be easier said than done, though; implementing similar functions while using different code is not easy. In something as tight as the Linux kernel, small changes can result in drastically different behavior. What if this doesn't prove possible within a reasonable time frame?

Corporate users, already under threat of a direct lawsuit from SCO, will probably leave the encumbered Linux. I would be suspicious of any corporate counsel advising otherwise. Many will make the move to a Microsoft Windows-based server farm. Others will switch to another Unix variant, such as a BSD system, Solaris, or AIX. Yet others might go to a closed source appliance setup, with separate, dedicated appliances handling file, printing, and mail services, as well as firewalling and backup management. The corporate installation base would be Linux's biggest percentage loss.

Individual users are a different matter. Demonstrating willful violation of copyright by each user, separately, would be very costly to SCO. Most likely, they would not recover the cost of such a campaign. That doesn't mean they wouldn't try.

Here are the options I see for individual users if SCO wins:

  • Stay with Linux. It has its risks, but there are some things you can do to hide the Linux identity of your system as much as possible:

    • Make sure your exposed Internet services don't mention Linux in any network data.
    • Modify the Initial Sequence Number generator in the TCP stack (a poorer algorithm will make it look like a proprietary Unix).
    • Use SSL-enabled Internet services to obscure the word "Linux" in your Internet traffic.
    • Run the latest nmap and Steve Gibson's ShieldsUP! against your system regularly.

    These won't be perfect, but they will help slow down attempts to identify your operating system.

  • Change to a BSD variant. Yes, the licensing is different. Yes, the design philosophy is different. But people who are comfortable with using Linux daily will probably find the switch to *BSD easier than their initial switch to Linux. And BSD's history practically guarantees an unencumbered future.
  • Switch to a proprietary but free or cheap Unix. Solaris was this way, once upon a time. Another one may soon be. I'm sure the proprietary Unix vendors are watching this case closely, as a loss for Linux means oppportunities to expand their user bases.
  • Install Microsoft Windows. Hey, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

I already have some experience with FreeBSD, so I know what I'll do if SCO ultimately wins. My preferred Linux distro is Slackware, which is based on BSD. Making the switch would take some work, but I would be comfortable with the end result.

So now, I put the question to the community: What will you do if SCO wins its lawsuit?

Mark McGrew has used Linux since 1997, and used it exclusively since 1999. On his Web site he dashes off random thoughts that might be of interest to others.

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