Closing In On Mainstream Apps

Is Open Source Software An Idea Whose Future Is Now?

After more than 20 years , the movement towards open source software has become arising tide. Rather than trying to stop the tide from coming in, the likes of HP, IBM,Oracle and SAP are learning to swim with the answer to this question: "Is mainstreamacceptance of the open source concept an idea whose time has come?"

"I want to live in a world where software doesn't suck," says Eric Raymond,president of the Open Source Initiative. "The main concept of open source is peerreview. Lots and lots of people looking at the code." The goal, he adds, is to makethat case to the commercial software development world. "I'm the guy who says theemperor doesn't have any clothes."

The dichotomy between the open source concept and conventional development is summed upin Raymond's manifesto "The Cathedral and the Bazaar." In it, he compares thetraditional process of building software to that of building great cathedrals that are,"... carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working insplendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time."

Contrast that to the free-wheeling nature of an open-air marketplace: "... theLinux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas andapproaches (aptly symbolized by the Linux archive sites, who'd take submissions fromanyone). The Linux world not only didn't fly apart in confusion but seemed to go fromstrength to strength at a speed barely imaginable to cathedral-builders."

While Linux may be, according to Raymond, "the star performer we're using toadvance our case," it's by no means the only innovation that can be credited to opensource adherents over the last 20 plus years. Raymond points to the Apache Web server,(calling it the "core software of the Internet"), DNS, Internet Bind libraries,Perl and sendmail as examples of what true believers have created and freely modified."Linux is just an example, not the be all and end all. People shouldn't see it as theonly story out there."

While the case for open source is easy to make for individual developers and end users,for conventional ISVs it may not be so apparent. But, Raymond says the open-source modelhas a lot to offer the business world. "It's a way to build open standards as actualsoftware, ... a way that many companies and individuals can collaborate on a product thatnone of them could achieve alone. It's the rapid bug-fixes and changes that the user asksfor, done to the user's own schedule. [It] also means increased security: Because code isin the public view it will be exposed to extreme scrutiny, with problems found and fixedinstead of kept secret until the wrong person discovers them."

From an investor's point of view, he touts four different business models for makingmoney with open source:

  • Support Sellers - Effectively giving away the software product, but selling distribution, branding andafter-sale service similar to what RedHat and Cygnus do.
  • Loss Leader - Giving away open-source as a loss-leader and market positioner for closed softwaresimilar to what Netscape does.
  • Widget Frosting - A hardware company for which software is a necessary adjunct but strictly a cost ratherthan profit center, goes open-source in order to get better drivers and interface toolscheaper.
  • Accessorizing - Selling accessories like books, compatible hardware, complete systems with open-sourcesoftware pre-installed. Books and hardware underlie some clear successes: O'ReillyAssociates, SSC, and VA Research.

If heavyweight endorsements are any indication of an idea or product's entry into ITprime time, then open source and in particular, Linux's time has arrived. The mostsignificant conversion to date has certainly been IBM, says Raymond. With DB2, alreadyavailable in a Linux flavor and a February, 1999 agreement with Red Hat to run its Linuxon IBM personal systems, Big Blue is committed to push open source across its productline.

Add to that HP's announced alliance with open source programmers to port Linux to runon PA-RISC (see HP Lines Up Linux For PA-RISC sidebar) and its creation of the Open SourceSupport Organization (OSSO) as part of the E-Services division. "Linux is definitelyfor real," says Wayne Caccamo, HP's director of the OSSO. "It's going to play amajor role in HP's strategic markets for ISPs, Web and e-mail servers and firewallproxies."

The purpose of HP's OSSO is to coordinate and evolve a common open source voice acrossall system and software services business units. "We're going to combine all ourefforts into a cohesive strategy," says Caccamo. As to the inclusion of Linux intowhat has been a proprietary HP-UX domain, Caccamo adds that, rather than undercuttingHP-UX, the endorsement of Linux adds another tool for e-commerce developers. "It'svery easy to develop on Linux and deploy on HP-UX."

The two operating systems will be further linked by support of APIs and tool sets suchas Cygnus' Tool Chain. According to Caccamo, "Common APIs and common tools are agrowing funnel for future HP-UX deployment."

But, as popular and sturdy as Linux has become, it may not be appropriate in allsituations, he adds. "There may be some things that Linux can't handle, like failoverclusters, where it makes more sense for us to push HP-UX. Like in classic data centerenvironments."

Finally, and perhaps most revealling about HP's future plans, Caccamo says thateverything in HP's software product line is being evaluated for possible porting to Linux.He adds that OpenMail is currently in testing and should be Linux-ready in the near futureand with Network Node Manager (NNM) already able to manage Linux clients, a Linux-basedNNM console is "being looked at."

Of course the Redmondians are paying close attention to the possible long-term effectsof the open model. This past October, Raymond came into possession of several confidentialinternal Microsoft memos written by Vinod Valloppillil, a Microsoft engineer. Dubbed"The Halloween Papers," they start by stating, "[Open Source Software]poses a direct, short-term revenue and platform threat to Microsoft -- particularly in theserver space. Additionally, the intrinsic parallelism and free idea exchange in OSS hasbenefits that are not replicable with our current licensing model and therefore present along-term developer mindshare threat."

Finding ways for Microsoft strategists to fight the movement may be forcing newdefinitions of just what it's fighting. For a company steeped in the traditionalone-on-one style of combat between companies, open source's loosely defined, amorphousformat will force a re-thinking of Microsoft's competitive nature. The memo adds, "tounderstand how to compete against OSS, we must target a process rather than acompany."

Microsoft, in a posting to their Web site dated November, 5 1998, answered, "[thememos] were intended to stimulate internal discussion on the open source model and theoperating system industry. The practice of researching and assessing competitors isstandard procedure at the company ... It's important to note that these memos represent anengineer's individual assessment of the market at one point in time. [They] are not anofficial statement by Microsoft."

Ed Muth, Microsoft's Enterprise Marketing Group manager, gave the official Redmondianreply: "My analysis is that Linux is a material competitor in the lower-performanceend of the general purpose server industry and the small to medium-sized ISP industry. Itis important to recognize that Linux, beyond competing with Microsoft, is also and perhapseven more frequently, an alternative or competitor to other versions of UNIX."

To many in the commercial world of big-business software, the open source movementlooks like a radical change in the ways of doing business. To the movement's strongestadvocates, the radical change is in advancing a moral argument that end users are entitledto the best products they can find and the only way to improve end products is to offerthe source code for open review and thereby improve engineering outcomes. Says Raymond, "If we can't improve the software, then we don't deserve to win the moralargument."

--Ken Deats,
Associate Editor

HP Lines Up Linux For PA-RISC

On March 1,1999 HP announced that it will enlist the support of the open source development community in porting Linux to run on its PA-RISC platform. That support will take the form of  The Puffin Group (Ottawa, Ont., Can.).

Named for a cousin of the Linux mascot, the penguin, The Puffin Group currently consists of three people in the core group with an active mailing list of over 150 programmers. "We can generate an incredible response from the development community. Our goal is to help corporations and the Linux community get together," says Christopher Beard, president of The Puffin Group. "We act as an intermediary or liaison." At least one dozen programmers have expressed interest in the PA-RISC port project.

Beard and several of his Linux cohorts started the port of Linux to PA-RISC before HP was involved. Once people got wind of his efforts, HP offered to supply equipment, technical consultants and other help as needed. "HP and the open source developers had different motivations but the same goals," he says. "That's why the relationship works." Beard adds that he expects to be through with the kernel development within a year and he may have people polishing and enhancing the kernel concurrently.

Noting that the firm is still in an embryonic business state, Beard describes himself as a non-traditionalist and the company as "a group of passionate open-source developers ... with considerable experience in all aspects of Linux." He adds that Puffin's developers all maintain other full time jobs but volunteer their time to the group's efforts. "The developers are in it for the experience and challenge, but they still have to generate revenue streams. They work on other projects to pay the bills."

Beard himself has been a senior analyst with the Canadian government for over two years and is currently working on projects that use only Linux. He has worked with UNIX for over 10 years, Linux since 1992 and Linux exclusively for the last three years. "For a lot of my projects, NT and UNIX are not adequate."

-- K.D.

The Linux Beer Hike (a.k.a. "LBW") is a week-long trip scheduled forAugust 7 - 14, 1999 in which Linux users will hike the hills and caves of North EasternBavaria to learn Linux on their laptop computers by day and visit the local brewpubs bynight. Check for more details. Maybe they'll comeback with Linux on PA-RISC.