UnitedLinux quietly marches on

FRAMINGHAM (09/25/2003) - The UnitedLinux consortium - unveiled with much fanfare last year as a unified effort to create a standard Linux distribution - has been awfully quiet of late in an industry segment that has been anything but quiet.

That has market watchers questioning what the future holds for the group, formed in May 2002 by Conectiva SA, SuSE Linux AG, Turbolinux Inc. and Caldera (now The SCO Group Inc.). Many questions have centered on the US$3 billion copyright infringement suit that SCO filed earlier this year against IBM Corp. and SCO's subsequent legal pursuit of all Linux distributions and even Linux users.

What's more, SCO executives in May said the company was suspending activities with UnitedLinux (although a member of the consortium says SCO continues to participate in UnitedLinux meetings).

"I think UnitedLinux is being very quiet right now, waiting for the issue between IBM and The SCO Group to be settled," says Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of system software at IDC. "My sense is since the discussion of UnitedLinux has a tendency to bring up The SCO Group and all of the issues that The SCO Group has brought forward, the individual members of the group have spoken less and less about UnitedLinux. Although, behind the scenes they appear to be working together."

Joseph Eckert, a spokesman for SuSE, which did the bulk of the engineering work for the UnitedLinux distribution, says technical projects continue, although the majority of work has been completed. As a result, he says SCO's distancing itself from UnitedLinux is having little impact.

"Really, the UnitedLinux activities were sort of being curtailed anyway," he says, noting that a standardized Linux platform, UnitedLinux 1.0, was rolled out at Comdex last November, and certifications and partner support from vendors such as Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and Oracle Corp. followed.

"Now essentially the role of UnitedLinux is to continue to support the maintenance of (UnitedLinux 1.0), which is what we're doing, and to make sure certifications are up to date," Eckert says. "Most of those certifications and technology issues were handled by SuSE, anyway. That's the way the partnership was built."

When asked whether UnitedLinux ultimately would be dissolved, Eckert said only that it was "premature to speculate on that."

"The next product cycle probably brings us into the middle of next year, and we have until then to decide what's going to happen with UnitedLinux," he says.

Eckert says regardless of UnitedLinux's future, SuSE would evolve the UnitedLinux platform. Customers appear unfazed.

"As long as there is SuSE, we'll be fine," says Joe Poole, technical director at Boscov's Department Stores in Reading, Pa.

Boscov's uses SuSE Enterprise Server 8 in some instances and plans to move its z900 mainframe to the UnitedLinux-powered platform when it upgrades its WebSphere Commerce deployment later this year. Poole says the idea behind UnitedLinux is a good one.

"The architecture of the distributions today does not have to be the same, which can be confusing when multiple distributions are used in a single shop. It's also a nightmare for developers who would like to have their software install without a problem on any Linux system," he says. "If you have a version of UnitedLinux, most open source programs and commercial software should install with ease."

Poole says he hopes UnitedLinux will let the Linux community "avoid the trap that befell Unix."

"Every company had its own version (of Unix), and porting from one platform to another was a headache," he says. "The only question left regards Red Hat (Inc.) and what it intends to do."

The possibility of Red Hat joining UnitedLinux appears remote. Red Hat snubbed its nose at UnitedLinux when it was invited to join the consortium last year, and Gartner Inc. analysts doubted that the consortium would have any impact on the more than 50 percent market share that they expect Red Hat to retain through 2005.

Indeed, Red Hat continues to dominate the market and just last week introduced its open source architecture, which expands Red Hat's business beyond the operating system to include infrastructure software, such as application servers and systems management.

While some analysts say the underlying premise of UnitedLinux - that small vendors banding together can save money by combining efforts to create a technically sophisticated platform - remains sound, others say the future of the group will have little effect on the Linux market in general.

"To be very honest, UnitedLinux wasn't having much impact, anyway," says Bill Claybrook, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc. "It needed to be bigger, and it needed to be more dynamically managed and run. I'm not saying it didn't accomplish anything, but what it accomplished was much less than what it set out to do."

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