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United Linux: One for all, and all for one


Today, a major Linux revolution started. Caldera, Conectiva, SuSE, and Turbolinux announced that they would work together in a new initiative, UnitedLinux that will create a single global, uniform business distribution of Linux. UnitedLinux is creating a standard, business-focused Linux distribution that is certified to work across the both AMD and Intel’s 32-bit x86 lines, the 64-bit x86 Athlon, Opteron, and Itantium families; and the complete IBM eServer series.

Some Linux fans are poo-pooing this annoucement as not being that big a deal. They’re dead wrong. While it won’t make much difference to consumer Linux—United Linux (UL), a pure business operating system play, completely changes the Linux business landscape.

Why? Because at long last OEMs, like IBM and HP, and more importantly independent software vendors (ISV)s will need to work with, at most, two Linux versions—the other being Red Hat— instead of the five major versions they must deal with today. That will save these companies a bundle of application porting money.

Indeed, as Ransom Love, Caldera’s CEO, say, the OEMs and ISVs have been pushing for it. AMD, Borland, Computer Associates, Fujitsu, HP, IBM, Intel, Siemens, and SAP, , not to mention resellers and integrators, have all wanted fewer Linux distributions. And that’s exactly what they got.
Some observors see UL as a pure anti-Red Hat move. The UL distributors insist that is not the case. Lee Pham, CEO of Turbolinux, and Love both made this point. Instead, they see the main driver as all the partners’ wanting to meet the needs, almost demands, of OEMs, ISVs and customers for fewer and better Linux choices.

Scott Handy, IBM’s director of Worldwide Linux Solutions agrees. While he says that IBM didn’t push the UL initative per se, “It was a community effort. But, we did like, all other ISVs and OEMs, make it clear that unification would make it much easier to sell Linux in the enterprise space.” Every other UL ISV and OEM partner echoed these comments.

Stacey Quandt, Giga’s Open Source analyst, however, thinks that IBM played a bigger role than Handy claims. “If you look at the companies that partnered with UL, you’ll see that most of them are IBM allies.” She thinks that IBM helped drive the creation of UL because Big Blue needed a unified Linux to support their DB2 database and WebSphere middleware across their platform line.

Additionally, she observes that Red Hat and Oracle have become quite chummy and that next week the two will be announcing Unbreakable Linux. She thinks that what we may be seeing is Linux polarizing around three vendors: IBM and United Linux, Oracle and Red Hat, and Sun with its own inhouse Linux.

Another problem that this addresses for the UL distributors is brand recognition. In the United States, when you say Linux to a customer today, they almost always think of Red Hat. With all of the major other Linux vendors advertising UL, this may change.

The UL companies also needed to reduce reduce costs. As it was, each of the Linux companies essentially had to reinvent the wheel of file systems, installation software and so on with each of their own releases. By consolidating their efforts behind one kernel, one installation routine and so on, they could avoid wasting their engineers’ time.

This is a move, Love explains, that’s been coming ever since Bruce Perens, one of open source’s fathers and now HP’s senior straegits for Linux and Open Source, first said almost five ago that there needed to be a unified code base.

In practice, things finally moved beyond the “wouldn’t this be a good idea” stage about eight months ago. Three weeks ago, Caldera, which lead the UnitedLinux initative in many ways, announced that they were closing their Erlangen, Germany offices.

What they didn’t say at the time was that these employees were going straight to SuSE. There, lead by Ralf Flaxa, a former Caldera senior engineer and Linux Standard Base designer, the combined SuSE and Caldera team are already making SuSE’s Enterprise Linux server into the core UL operating system.
The project, with SuSE as lead integrator, already has alpha product. Beta will follow in the 3rd quarter, and the shipping code will be available in the 4th quarter. More specifically, according to Love, November, probably Comdex, will see the release of the final product.

Who’s on Board and Who’s Not

Of course, not everyone is in on the deal. Red Hat, the most important North American business Linux, isn’t in on it, and neither is Mandrake, the popular consumer Linux vendor or Sun. Love explained that the “pulling together the four companies was more than difficult enough.” It may also had something to do with the fact that each company already had its own stronghold. SuSE’s the most popular Linux distribution; Conectiva’s is South America’s; Turbolinux is strong in Asia and the Pacific rim, and Caldera, while not as big as Red Hat, is a North American power.

In any case, UL membership is open to any Linux distributiors. There is no membership fees, but companies will need to contribute their fair share of the development costs. In specific, the door has already been opened to Mandrake, Red Flag (China), Red Hat, and Sun. The UL big four are certain that other companies will join them.

But, it may be a while. Mark de Visser, Vice President of Marketing for Red Hat wrote that while “Too many distributions hamper the migration of applications to Linux, so if this effort by Caldera and others consolidates distributions it is a good development. But in Linux, application support is everything. Red Hat Linux Advanced Server has it today. Time will tell if the Caldera group’s distribution will achieve the same level of support.”

Despite Red Hat’s charization of this as a Caldera group, all four companies are equal partners with SuSE and Caldera, it appears, spearheading the effort. It’s also worth noting that while they’re united behind UL, they’re not united as a business entities. This is no merger. Each company will keep their own identity, set their own prices, and do their own marketing.

UL Specifics

What UL will bring to the table is a common kernel, APIs, file systems installation routines and so on for business Linux. In short, no matter the vendor name on the box, users, OEMs and developers will get UL. This will come in the familiar form of a single installation CD. Each company will also bundle along with it, on separate CDs, their own software packages. You can expect to see, for example, Volution products on Caldera’s CD and PowerCockpit in Turbolinux’s package.

Contrary to some rumours, the UL will be a completely GPL and associated licenses protected Linux. The source code will be freely availble, but the binaries will not. Of course, some take the UL source code and create their own binaries, but these won’t be allowed to use UL branding or get UL support.
In addition, UnitedLinux will also support the Linux Standards Base (LSB)—in some ways it can be seen as an implementation of the LSB–, and the Li18nux and GB18030 standards. UL will also have vast international support for English, German, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese languages.

The target audience for UL will be the middle and high end Unix and Windows 2000 installations. While UL will show up in basic file/print servers, it’s aim is much higher.

Besides simply bringing together the best Linux practices of the four companies, the product, according to Love, will also include functionality taken from Caldera’s OpenUnix and OpenServer lines.
On the flip side, OpenUnix 8 will include a UL Linux Kernel Personality (LKP), and, if there’s customer demand for it, a UL LKP for OpenServer. In any case, Caldera plans to continue supporting both its Unix platforms. If anything, with less time spent on Linux internally, they may actually get more attention.

What it All Means

For the UL members, and the companies that join them, this should be good news. They can cut costs while actually delivering a better business Linux. It also gives each of them a global reach and makes their partnerships with OEMs and ISVs much stronger.

The OEMs and ISVs, of course, have suddenly seen their Linux strategies become much easier to manage and cheaper. In turn, you can expect to see many more business applcations arriving for Linux.

All of which, will make it much easier for CTOs, resellers and integrators. You’ll be much less likely to face obscure Linux application implementation problems because of subtle differences between Linux distributions. And, you’ll have a much wider array of Linux business applications to tempt customers with.

Of course, if Red Hat does join UnitedLinux—after all it would save them development costs and improve their ISV relationships too—Linux could make its biggest jump yet in business deployments.

The dark cloud on the horizon is whether UL might lead to a three-way battle between the forces of Red Hat and Oracle and UnitedLinux and IBM and Sun resulting in a mild version of the kind of Unix operating system wars that damaged so many Unix resellers and customers.

While unlikely to go that far, a wise practical technologist will keep his or her eyes on the business relationship dances between IBM, Oracle and Sun. That, more than anything else, will determine.

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