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OS wars: the last hope
Who would have guessed that the biggest challenge to Microsoft's OS empire would come from a disparate group of code hackers. Brad Howarth reports


[feature image] IT would be very easy to dismiss Linux as a fluke, as more a quaint community-based programming fad than a serious attempt at building a new operating system. After all, it has no major corporate backing and no huge marketing department.

It just has lots of very skilled, very dedicated code hackers spread around the world, each one writing code in a development environment more like a commune than a corporation.

But dismissing Linux as the Silicon Valley version of a hippie commune might also mean ignoring a groundswell from an IT community tired of being locked into doing things someone else's way.

After all, when frustration mounts, people will look for other solutions, and those solutions aren't always orthodox.

Linux is a Unix-like operating system originally created seven years ago by University of Helsinki student Linus Torvalds. It has now grown into a fully fledged, multiplatform operating system with a reputation for being highly stable and easy to administer – something its highly priced competitors can't claim to match.

Even user-friendliness – the traditional bugbear of command-line-based operating systems – is being catered for with a number of Windows-like user interfaces, as Red Hat's GNOME and KDE's K make Linux more accommodating for the less IT-literate users.

What makes Linux so attractive, though, is that it breaks one of the fundamental rules of commercial IT: it is absolutely free.

The basic heart of Linux (called the kernel) uses no source code from any proprietary source. Rather, it is covered by a public licence that ensures Linux remains freely available. While companies are allowed to develop and resell their own operating systems based around the Linux kernel, they may not try to restrict its distribution.

And as the operating system itself is open source code, anyone is free to hack and create as they please. Essentially, Linux is a hacker's delight, and numerous Australians have already contributed to the code base.

Nathan Bailey began working with Linux as a student at Monash University in 1995. He now heads up Linux Users of Victoria, a user group of 315 members and growing.

"The thing that kept me on as a user was the hack value," Bailey says. "If anything on my system doesn't work, I can find out why. With my Windows box, if it doesn't work you just assume someone has written some buggy software and you'll have to live with it."

The popularity of Linux has taken everyone by surprise. As Linux is freely redistributable, exact user figures are impossible to compile, but estimates range between 7.5 million and 10 million users.

It dominates the Internet service provider marketplace as preferred operating system, well ahead of Microsoft's Windows NT.

Ramin Marzbani, principal of Web consulting company http://www.consult, says Linux is the primary operating system of 49 per cent of Australian ISPs, and the secondary system for a further 30 per cent.

In the past 12 months major independent database vendors have fallen over each other to port products to Linux, with interesting results.

When embedded database vendor InterBase developed its Linux port, company officials had little idea of how it would be received. Thus it posted its version to the Web for download with little fanfare and no official announcement, only to see its Web server go crashing to its knees.

InterBase was forced to upgrade to a T1 Internet connection and replicate the download all around the world, in order to cater for the 20,000 downloads in the first month.

Whether every copy downloaded is being put to use will never be known, but it follows that at least some are.

Enough copies are being used for several companies to build profitable businesses around Linux.

The most successful of these to date is Red Hat Software, which develops, sells and supports a version of Linux consisting of the kernel and around 500 different operating system components.

Red Hat vice-president of enterprise computing Paul McNamara says making money from something that is free may seem improbable, but companies have been doing it with water for decades.

"In the software industry everybody believed that your intellectual property was really what established the value of your technology," McNamara says. "We're selling a software product whose intellectual property is freely redistributable, yet our finances look like those of a proprietary software company in terms of what our gross margins are and profits are."

Red Hat Linux boasts 5.5 million users worldwide, which gives its 55 per cent of the user market, according to research company IDC.

McNamara concedes that, for all the benefits of Linux, a portion of its success can be simply attributed to many people's dislike of Microsoft.

"There's a very large number of people out there who like to have choices, and they become uncomfortable when they perceive that there are no choices," he says. "So certainly those folks are enthusiastic to see the growth of Linux and our success in the marketplace."

Microsoft has flagged Linux as a potential threat to the growth of Windows NT, with various memos stating that the public licence and open source code model could pose a threat that Microsoft may need to counteract.

The greatest danger for Linux is that it will fragment into proprietary versions.

While the open source code model allows various Linux-based operating systems to exist in parallel, McNamara doesn't believe it will fall into the same trap as Unix, which commercial pressures fractured into numerous incompatible proprietary versions.

"The economic incentives that create the multiple flavours of Unix don't exist in the Linux world, because if somebody comes up with something new and better, everybody can take advantage of it," he says.

Red Hat's current challenge is to use the growing popularity of Linux in the technical community to leverage it into enterprise sites.

In many cases the bridgeheads have already been established, with programmers having sneaked it in under the eyes of the procurement department to perform particular tasks.

"Some corporations think Linux is only available over the Internet, that it just emerges from the ether, but it's becoming increasingly known that there are commercial Linux providers out there," McNamara says.

"Now that the exposure has gone up quite a bit, enterprises have realised they are running a lot of Linux, and they are running a lot of mission-critical servers on Linux," he says.

Not everyone is so optimistic that Linux's rise will continue.

Craig Mullins, vice-president for marketing operations in database management at enterprise tools vendor Platinum Technology, says the spate of Linux product announcements has more to do with PR than real products for the enterprise market. "It's not that there's a problem with the operating system. The operating system is probably every bit as good as every other Unix out there, but the issue is support," Mullins says.

"You have companies like Caldera and Red Hat that charge for that, and give you some level of support, but if I'm running my big enterprise systems on this operating system I want to be able to pick up the phone and get an immediate response if there's a problem. When that system goes down I'm losing money.

"Linux just doesn't cut it, because if there's a problem with the code, Red Hat can't fix that for you. No-one really owns the Linux code, so you just have to wait until someone out there in the ether finds a fix.

"That's not really what people want for enterprise systems."

Enterprise users aren't the only focus for Linux developers though. Application developer Corel makes no secret that it views Linux as a possible way of circumventing Microsoft's stranglehold on desktop operating systems.

Corel recently released a Linux edition of its WordPerfect word processor for free download, and will follow with a complete suite of products next year.

Senior vice-president of engineering Derek Burney says Linux is well matched to Corel's corporate philosophy of offering value, compatibility and choice for the customer.

"Some corporations would like to get away from paying the Microsoft tax and go towards a free operating system, but they are prohibited from doing so at the moment because there aren't enough applications available on it," Burney says.

"We could either wait around for that to change or we could take an active role in helping bring about that change."

Corel will eventually release its porting tools to other Windows application developers to help build the number of Linux applications available.

"Fighting the office war with Microsoft on Windows is a tiresome battle," Burney says. "If we can go to a different playing field that isn't owned by the same company that's developing the applications, it levels the playing field.

"There isn't anybody arguing that there is a more robust and stable operating system out there right now, and as long as there are lots of applications people really have a choice when it comes down to what operating system they are going to use."

While Linux has been historically more popular with ISPs and the more technical users, the advent of user interfaces and the rise of Red Hat and other Linux-focused companies is bringing it into the mainstream, Burney says.

"It's getting easier and easier to use, so we're finding that more and more people are willing to take it to the next step," Burney says.

"It will be a while before it becomes for mainstream consumer use, but at the rate things are going now, I'm actually quite surprised at how rapidly the operating system is advancing."

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