Column: Caldera takes Linux into the big leagues

Will Unix-like Linux ever foot it with commercial OSes or will 'the Evil Empire' never allow it to happen?

There is a chapter in the Red Hat Software Linux user's guide entitled "Will Linux replace commercial OSes?" It goes on to conclude that it probably won't, primarily because the company it refers to as "the Evil Empire" will never allow it to happen.

There are a few things wrong with that answer. First, it is a response to a different question, "Will Linux ever replace Windows?" But even that question is irrelevant. Red Hat should really be speculating, "Will Linux ever be given fair consideration alongside commercial OSes?"

As far as server platforms are concerned, the answer to that question is already "yes." Linux boasts an exceptional number of Internet server installations at the amateur, corporate, and professional level.

The desktop, however, is an entirely different ball game. Caldera thinks it can play in the big leagues with Caldera Open Linux, a version of the Unix-like operating system due this year. Caldera Open Linux will gain the X/Open brand for Unix 95 certification and will have Posix.2 compliance by the end of the year, according to Caldera.

The increasingly popular Lightweight Directory Access Protocol support is due this fourth quarter. Caldera is also porting SunSoft's Intel version of Wabi, which runs Windows 3.11 applications natively (and thus very quickly) under Unix. If all this doesn't sound like a push for the desktop, I don't know what does. But it is a desktop strategy as unlike Microsoft's as possible. In the great Linux tradition, Caldera plans to publish the complete source code for Caldera Open Linux on the Internet.

Is Linux on the corporate desktop an impossible dream despite these moves? Maybe, but current trends may be opening the door to such an unthinkable fate as this.

It wasn't long ago when it was InfoWorld's unwritten policy to ignore anything but shrink-wrapped commercial software. Shareware, freeware and software covered by the GNU general public licence didn't carry the perception of offering the reliability and support our readers need.

Then the Internet happened. IS departments, wary of the benefits of Internet connectivity, initially tried to connect with a minimal investment (as many are still wont to do). Some chose a spare 486 for their Internet server and loaded it up with a copy of Linux, FreeBSD or BSDI Unix.

Lo and behold, these administrators found out firsthand that inexpensive multitasking, multiuser Unix variants are faster, less resource intensive and more stable than OS/2, Windows NT and NetWare. Some of these Unix products even come with broader driver support than mainstream commercial products.

They also discovered official and unofficial Internet sites (World Wide Web and FTP) that support just about every product available. And they could post a question on an Internet newsgroup and get answers in a heartbeat that are frequently more reliable than the biggest vendor's own technical support.

This accidental experience may have converted more shrink-wrap worshippers than any amount of advertising might have done.

But if that cracked the door, let me tell you what might kick it wide open: Linux for the PC is, culturally speaking, the new DOS/Windows generation. Most minicomputer and mainframe administrators didn't wake up one day and say, "Gosh, let's all retrain and retrofit our enterprise for PC client/server!" Instead, a generation of PC amateurs worked their way up to IS through PC LANs. They essentially infiltrated IS and made it their own.

Now consider this. Next time you interview a fresh college graduate for the position of LAN administrator or desktop support, ask what operating systems he or she prefers. I'll lay odds that most honest applicants will include a version of Linux.

Now be honest with yourself. The cocky look you gave to that answer was the same one you DOS/Windows experts used to get when you applied for your jobs in the '80s.

Here's what Caldera has going for it. The Linux kernel sniffs out hardware at boot time, which makes it a limited plug-and-play system. Installation is often a breeze. I had the Open Linux beta, problems and all, up and running in its default configuration on my odd generic Pentium box in far less time than it took for Windows 95.

Caldera Network Desktop 1.0, the current product, comes with a friendly GUI called Looking Glass (a program manager somewhat like Windows 3.1 but without many of the limitations), NetWare NDS client support, Netscape Navigator 2.0 and a bundle of other goodies also found in Red Hat Linux. There are tons of remarkably hefty free and shareware applications available (some included, some you can download).

Critics will say it's the commercial apps, stupid, and they'll be right. But that could change, too. Caldera is enjoying almost magical success in courting ISVs. Caldera Network Desktop 1.0 already boasts the separately purchased Caldera Office Suite 1.0. The suite includes Corel's WordPerfect 6.0 for Unix, NCD Software's Z-mail, Xess Software's Nexs spreadsheet, and Metrolink's Executive Motif Libraries.

If you're not happy with the Looking Glass interface, Linux (like Unix) runs many other window managers. It is, in a sense, what IBM hoped to achieve with the OS/2 microkernel OS with multiple personalities. Most recently, I have been playing with a beta of an interesting alternative window manager called FVWM-95. (For links to this and other Linux applications, check out http://www.xnet.com/ percent7Eblatura/linapps.shtml.)

This window manager includes multiple virtual desktops, a launch pad, a task bar, and a start menu system almost identical to Windows 95's.

The task bar is the one part of Windows 95 I like, so I've combined FVWM-95 with Caldera's Looking Glass program manager to create a flexible and intuitive Linux system that never seems to crash.

Please let me know what you think about Linux and a corporate future (or if you have it running on any IS-supported desktops today). I admit I was one of the first to say Unix would never make it to the company desktop. Now I wonder if I'll have to eat crow.

(Petreley is an InfoWorld columnist. He can be emailed at nicholas_petreley@infoworld.com.)

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