Nathan, who was commenting after the opening of Sybase’s New Zealand head office in Wellington, says that never has any venture offering its main product or service free of charge made sufficient profit to stay in business in the long term.
If Red Hat and other Linux distributors want to become a significant and lasting presence in the market they will have to start charging a market price for the operating system and associated open source software, Nathan says.
Red Hat’s emerging practice of charging for support rather than for a licence to Linux itself is likened by Nathan to a petrol station letting motorists fill up for free and charging them to have their windscreens washed.
Nathan was challenged by Linux champions present on his analysis. They suggested that the costs of developing a Linux system are close to zero because a lot of it is done, and tolerated by employers, in the slack moments in the schedule of developers doing a fulltime job in related or different areas of IT.
Nathan sees that as irrelevant. If Red Hat and the like are to grow they will have to attract outside investment, he says, and those investors will sooner or later want a return. That will mean charging a market price to the end user.
Despite his scepticism, Sybase is producing a Linux version of its flagship database product. “You get on the train while it is running,” says Nathan in explanation.
Speaking earlier in the day about Sybase’s ongoing emphasis on reducing total cost of ownership for the IT department, Nathan said unattended management is an important part of this. The cost of hosting software is coming down, but development costs are rising and operating costs more so, he says.
“The operating cost nowadays is 30% to 40% of the cost of keeping software running.”
Platform costs, on the other hand are constantly falling, with ever more powerful processors and raw disk “at one cent a megabyte”.
Part of the answer is to employ redundant hardware resources and management software to allow automatic readjustment to everyday variations in workload, even the unexpectedly large variations, and to failures in small parts of the system.
He compares the computer system of the future to the human body with its mechanism of homeostasis, sweating to relieve the discomfort of a hot day and raising its heart rate to cope with unaccustomed exercise.
“You don’t call the doctor when you feel hot, but you will call the doctor if you break your arm.”
Similarly, human intervention in computer systems should only be needed in cases of major failure.
But the typical data centre has staff on call against the IT equivalent of unseasonably hot weather, and these staff cost.
“We need technologies that continually measure the important parameters of the system and manage them to a healthy level without human intervention,” he says.
Sybase is working on such developments, he says, but declines to be tied to a delivery date. “It’s a never-ending process to get [to an ideal situation].”
Sybase is also working on partitioning its database products so as to lessen the effect of failure. A malfunction may throw one part of the database out of commission but others should be able to keep going, he says.
The company is also putting more and more of its energies into middleware, where the code for the business processes of an organisation increasingly resides, says Nathan, in town for the formal opening of Sybase’s new Wellington office. IT teams and users should not have to keep changing the front and back ends of the system to reflect change in the business. IT should become a “mature” function like telephone services, he says. These advance steadily but the supplier does not burden the user with having to change software in his/her phone. That’s the responsibility of the people running the infrastructure.