Much ado about UnitedLinux

It's been much ballyhooed but, ultimately, the plan by four Linux distributors to unite might not mean much. That's the view of one local developer immersed in the open source world, at any rate.

It’s been much ballyhooed but, ultimately, the plan by four Linux distributors to unite (UnitedLinux born without a Red Hat) might not mean much. That’s the view of one local developer immersed in the open source world, at any rate.

It’s a view -- or glimpse -- of a market that responds to different forces from those which we’ve come to know in the mainstream (Windows) operating system world, ruled today by court order. It’s a little reminiscent of the comings together and splits apart that used to be a regular feature of the Unix world a decade ago. Is it so long since there was competition in the OS market that we’ve lost the knack for interpreting these manoeuvrings? Certainly, the open source insider’s guess of what it all means is a much surer one than I’m willing to venture.

So what’s happened? Caldera, SuSE, TurboLinux and Connectiva have joined forces to develop what they’re calling UnitedLinux, which they’re promising to deliver later this year in an attempt to appeal to the Linux server market. It will provide a single, common code base to which Linux vendors can add their individual flavourings, making it easier for users to run applications across different Linux environments, according to a UnitedLinux representative.

A single Linux code base "means there will be only one Linux code base to certify for partners for their software and servers, and customers will have to support and maintain only one code base, simplifying the lives of IT mangers who want to bring Linux into their enterprise", UnitedLinux’s backers say.

Aside from the four Linux distributors involved, industry support for UnitedLinux is coming from Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Computer Associates. What of Linux market leader Red Hat, and Sun? Their absence from the UnitedLinux launch was merely a matter of timing, according to the spokesman (even though IDG journalist Matt Berger was able to write about the impending announcement two days before it happened).

Caldera’s involvement provides a link between developing commercialism in the Linux market and the kinds of ructions which were so regular among Unix vendors. Caldera, whose colourfully named boss, Ransom Love, paid a visit to Sydney last week to explain what UnitedLinux meant, two years ago mopped up Unix-on-Intel company SCO. Today, Love’s message is that Sun and others are welcome to join its Linux alliance.

Another recent announcement by Caldera, the news last month that its second-quarter sales were down on expectation, leading to significant layoffs, gives a clue to the UnitedLinux development. According to market researcher IDC, Caldera and cohorts are up against a competitor in Red Hat which accounts for more than half Linux shipments.

UnitedLinux is “competitive posturing” in the face of that dominance, IDC’s operating systems analyst says.

Indeed, let’s not get not get carried away by the move, says our local open source source: he interprets it is no more than an attempt by four lesser distributions to compete with more popular ones. Debian and Mandrake are also missing from the UnitedLinux line-up, described by this insider as a self-appointed group attempting to create a Linux standard when a perfectly good one already exists in the form of Linux Standard Base (LSB). (UnitedLinux, it should be pointed out, will support LSB.)

Debian, according to another local whose business is selling open source systems, makes up far and away the bulk of the New Zealand installed Linux base. He also tends to the view that there’s not much in the promise of UnitedLinux. What’s more, getting an application that runs on Red Hat, say, to run on another Linux flavour is no big deal anyway. Despite that, if UnitedLinux helps Linux capture more of the operating system market, he won’t be upset. And if his customers ask for it, he’ll provide it. But, generally, he doesn’t sell any of the branded distributions because all they actually provide is packaging.

If the upside is so nebulous, is there a downside from this alliance? In the somewhat mysterious world of open source software licensing, there might be. What if UnitedLinux includes code that isn’t covered by the open source general public licence (GPL), but requires a per-seat licence? That won’t go down well with open source proponents.

If nothing else, UnitedLinux proves there is some kind of competition in the operating system market once again. Who’s going to complain about that?

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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More about Advanced Micro Devices Far EastAdvanced Micro Devices Far EastCalderaCA TechnologiesDebianHewlett-Packard AustraliaIBM AustraliaIDC AustraliaIDGIntelLinuxLSBMandrakeRed HatSCOSuseTurbolinux

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