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Breaking Windows

Open-source movement opens doors
for creative tech pros

by Amara D. Angelica

Corporate America has em braced open-source software. The growing list of corporate converts, which already includes such heavyweights as Oracle Corp., IBM Corp. and Informix Corp., has some industry observers predicting that the most popular open-source operating system, Linux, could sideswipe mighty Windows NT 5.0 and eventually knock it off the road. The momentum behind the open-source movement is also creating a growth industry for technology professionals outside of Redmond.

"Open source" simply means the software’s source code is available to the public, which unleashes the creativity of thousands of enthusiasts to test, critique, modify, improve and extend the software’s capabilities. The open-source concept has proven itself in spades with software such as Apache (used on more than half of today’s Web servers) and Linux (pronounced "Lynn-ucks"), a sort of people’s Unix that runs on low-end PCs (and many other platforms) and lets anyone set up their own low-cost servers and Unix desktops.

With an estimated 7 million users, Linux also offers a low-cost and painless way to learn Unix and virtually instant support via newsgroups (see "Linux Seen as OS Lifeboat," March 23 issue).

This cumulative creativity was the rationale behind Netscape Commun ications Corp.’s surprise announcement earlier this year that it would release Netscape Communicator source code to developers. Spurred by Netscape’s example and the potential for lucrative new markets, other computer software and hardware vendors have stepped up to the plate and announced support for Linux:

  • Informix Corp. announced the availability of the Informix-SE database on Linux.
  • Oracle Corp. will port Oracle8, a leading database, to Linux by the end of the year.
  • VA Research Inc. introduced the VarServer 4100 enterprise-class Linux server, using four 400 MHz Xeon processors, with full support from Intel Corp.
  • Corel Computer Corp. released NetWinder DM, a Linux-based development platform, and Corel Corp. will release WordPerfect 8 for Linux this summer (WordPerfect 7 is already available). Plans also call for porting CorelDraw and other office apps.
  • IBM Corp. says it will ship another popular open-source software package—Apache Web server—as part of its WebSphere server and will collaborate with the Apache Group to develop Apache technology.
  • According to Jim Hamerly, Net scape’s VP of the client products division, "Access to creative talent of a much larger base of developers has resulted in more rapid development, new product capabilities, new platforms such as BeOS and Rhapsody, bug fixes and a higher quality product, since more people are looking at the code. It’s worked out quite well." He says Netscape plans to deliver a Communicator 5.0 beta by the end of the year and Linux versions of its server software, beginning with Netscape Messenger Server and Netscape Directory Server.

What was once arcane "freeware" favored only by a programming elite, now—as open-source software—has become a respectable option in mainstream computing.

So what opportunities and new directions does open software present? Lots. Here are five tips for cashing in on this fast-growing market:

1. Support services are the big opportunity.

Corporate and ISP markets are opening up. But so far, open-source software products tend to be designed more for Unix users. That creates a need for training, documentation and tech support, says Jordan Hubbard, a co-developer of the FreeBSD Unix-compatible operating system (OS).

He says the exploding ISP business is currently "a buyer’s market" for Unix-savvy professionals. "ISPs are hiring 14-year-old kids because of lack of personnel. Mindsource and other recruitment firms have lots of open reqs for Unix placement."

Hubbard also sees the need for a book on how to set up FreeBSD for ISPs. "ISPs are completely out to sea on setting up Unix operating systems like FreeBSD," he says, adding that several publishers are looking for such a book.

Netscape Executive VP and co-founder Marc Andreessen agrees with the need for service in the open-source software community. In a recent interview in Computer Reseller News, he theorized that "software companies are going to have to figure out how to give something away to start with in order to get something later. The opportunity exists for many software companies to become service companies."

The need for better support is also evident with Linux, a Unix-like OS that’s available free on the Internet and has an estimated five million to ten million users worldwide. Linux is widely used by ISPs and is also one of the fastest-growing Unix OSes in enterprises.

Low-cost commercial open-source software packages such as Red Hat Linux from Red Hat Software Inc. comes with service contracts and pre-configured software. In Red Hat’s case, that includes a Web server, e-mail server, DNS server, news server, Apache Web server, sendmail e-mail package and all of the software needed for use as a desktop client (e-mail, browsers, X Window, etc.), along with a package manager to handle upgrading—all for $49.95.

Red Hat’s support has been somewhat limited. However, says Marketing Director Lisa Sullivan, "We are also ramping up an extensive support services program, with the recent formation of an enterprise computing division. This will include commercial fee-based support from Red Hat as well as services from a network of Red Hat support providers."

Companies without Unix-trained staff can purchase hardware with Linux pre-installed. VA Research and Cobalt Networks Inc. offer such systems. Dell Computer Corp. is rumored to be selling Linux pre-installed on computers in Europe, where Linux is very popular, and may offer it in the United States if there’s sufficient demand—hopefully with good support. If that happens, the Linux market should become accessible to a broader, non-technical market.

"There are career opportunities anywhere a corporation is selling or using open source, which defines a wide and increasing swathe these days," says Eric S. Raymond, the leading open-source evangelist. "Take a look at the products page at www.opensource.org to find software and hardware vendors going this route."

2. Open-source Unix software is mainly appropriate for Net servers, engineering and development platforms.

Should your company or client use a noncommercial open-source Unix OS (such as Linux or FreeBSD)? In a May 4 research note (http://advisor.gartner.com/inbox/articles/ihl2_6398.html), the Gartner Group offered good answers.

The report concludes that free Unix is most appropriate for Web servers, domain name servers, proxy servers, intranets with limited criticality, and legacy integration and application development platforms. Free Unix is also limited to four-way multiprocessor systems and moderately scalable applications. The Gartner Group advises users to stick with well-tested, pre-configured versions of the OSes and check for available drivers, multiprocessor support, and tech support commitments.

"The Gartner Group’s recommendations are correct as far as they go, but timid and, I think, trimmed to match the prejudices of its normal client base," says Raymond. "Open-source Unix is a better bet anywhere you need 24/7 reliability. Our continuous uptime figures beat most commercial Unixes by a mile and NT by a light year.

"Large IT shops, according to a recent Datapro survey, already rate Linux as the overall best out of NT, Solaris, HP-UX and six other closed-source Linux vendors. Now that Oracle and Informix have announced ports to Linux, we can expect to see this move to Linux accelerate.

"Soon we’ll see Fortune 500 companies taking their servers and back ends ‘all Linux, all the time’ to escape the horrific bugs and instabilities in NT and get a lower cost of ownership than the closed Unix vendors can offer," says Raymond.

One major limitation of open-source Unix software is that it doesn’t support many desktop productivity apps. There is a Windows emulator called WINE, but it’s still in development and currently fairly limited in its capabilities.

3. Hybrid noncommercial/commercial solutions make open-source software more acceptable to enterprises.

"The problem is that open-source software is typically incomplete, lacking commercial support and domain-specific extensions," says John Ousterhout, CEO of Scriptics Corp. and the creator of open-source Tcl, a Unix scripting language used for rapid development by integrating application components.

"For staying power, this software needs a business built around it to supply the missing pieces. We’re seeing that with companies like Sendmail Inc., Cygnus Solutions—which supports the gcc compiler family—and Red Hat Software, as well as our own company, Scriptics.

"Our products will include Tcl extensions, development tools, and services like training and support. When we go and visit these companies, they tell us they were very nervous at first about using Tcl because there are no guarantees of support or bug fixes. But the value proposition is so strong, they’re using it anyway, even for mission-critical apps. When we come and tell them we’ll be providing support and consulting, as well as a predictable development path, we can see a huge sense of relief that now they can get all the benefits of exciting open-source software without the associated risks of instability and lack of commercial support."

4. Raymond segregates the market into four models:

Support sellers: "Give away the software product, but sell distribution, branding and after-sale service. This is what Red Hat and Cygnus are doing."

Loss-leader: "Give away as a loss-leader and market positioner for closed software. This is what Netscape is doing."

Widget frosting: "A hardware company (for which software is a necessary adjunct but strictly a cost rather than profit center) goes open-source in order to get better drivers and interface tools cheaper."

Accessorizing: "Selling accessories—books, compatible hardware, complete systems with open-source software pre-installed … Clear successes [include] O’Reilly & Associates, SSC and VA Research.

"The open-source culture’s exemplars of commercial success have, so far, been service sellers or loss-leaders," Raymond says. "Nevertheless, there is good reason to believe that the clearest near-term gains in open-source will be in widget frosting."

5. Linux is taking off in corporate markets.

Linux is most popular with ISPs, universities, government agencies, scientific organizations and developing countries, says Mary Hubley, a Gartner Group analyst. Linux offers support for more platforms than any other OS (from 286 PCs on up), and broader device driver support than any other open-source Unix.

Now it’s taking off with enterprise users, too. According to a Datapro survey (www.redhat.com/redhat/datapro.html), Linux is the only OS besides Windows NT that’s growing in corporate markets. The number of enterprises using Linux increased by 27 percent from 1996–1997, according to the study. Linux ranked No. 1 in overall customer satisfaction, based on a survey of managers and IS directors in large organizations.

However, Linux tends to be used mainly by system administrators and other technical staff. Management is often unaware of its use. Also limiting penetration of the corporate market is the lack of support for SMP (symmetrical multiprocessing) and scalability.

Linux developer Linus Torvalds, whose tongue-in-cheek goal for Linux is "world domination," says SMP is a major focus of current developments. According to Intel Corp. Principal Engineer Sunil Saxena, "We anticipate Linux will support 8-way SMP systems this year and possibly 32-way SMP next year. We also expect that Linux will be running on the [Intel 64-bit] Merced processor."

The growing support for Linux is offering Windows NT competition. An analysis by networking consultant John Kirch called "Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 versus Unix" (www.kirch.net/unix-nt.html), points out NT’s serious shortcomings, such as cost ($4,636 vs. $49.95 for Red Hat’s commercial Linux), stability/reliability (as in NT’s notorious "blue screen of death"), performance and security.

Another analysis, "Is NT paranoid or is Unix out to get it?" by Nicholas Petreley, NC World, May 1998, identifies a flaw in Windows NT that is responsible for its rapidly escalating cost of ownership. The analysis also contends that NT 5.0 is likely to rank "among the greatest programming disasters in American history."

"The next major phase in the open-source story will begin in six months or so as the full magnitude of Microsoft’s train wreck becomes apparent," says Raymond. "That’s around the same time we can expect the GNOME and KDE desktops to have matured, paving the way for a serious open-source assault on Microsoft’s desktop home turf."

What is “open source”?

The phrase "open-source software" was conceived in a strategy session on Feb. 5 in Palo Alto, according to Eric S. Raymond on his Open Source site (www.opensource.org). The phrase was picked up by Netscape and used in its historic Feb. 23 press release announcing its open-source Communicator policy. The use of "open source" was ratified by movement leaders at the Freeware Summit in Palo Alto on April 7.

According to Tim O’Reilly, CEO of Internet book publisher O’Reilly & Associates, the group defined the phrase as "software whose source code is available so that users can customize or extend it."

Why not call it free software or freeware, as traditionally called? Raymond explains that the term "free software" is ambiguous. "Free" means both freedom to modify code (the hacker meaning) and gratis. (Open source shouldn’t be confused with shareware, where source code may be proprietary.) "But the real reason for the re-labeling is a marketing one," says Raymond. "We’re trying to pitch our concept to the corporate world now. We have a winning product, but our positioning in the past has been awful. The term ‘free software’ has a load of fatal baggage; to a businessperson, it’s too redolent of fanaticism and flakiness and strident anticommercialism."

O’Reilly cited these selling points for open-source software:

  • Flexibility. Because source code is freely available, developers can modify the software to meet their or clients’ needs, including niche markets too specialized for commercial entities.
  • Innovation. "When developers can see and modify source code, they receive rapid feedback and a constant flow of ideas from other developers.
  • Reliability. "With hundreds or thousands of developers testing, inspecting and fixing bugs the quality assurance program for open-source software is far more reliable and efficient than any commercial effort can afford to be.
  • Faster development time. With so many more testers and instant Internet distribution, software updates and bug fixes can happen within days.

Raymond adds to this list: increased security (code is in public view, so problems can be quickly found and fixed) and lower overhead. For software vendors, he adds two other advantages: closeness to the customer ("co-opting your customers’ engineers to help your development") and a broader market ("wider range of operating systems and environments, as is the case with Linux, which supports more machines than any operating system").

As for customers, they gain independence from vendors ("Don’t you want to be out from under Microsoft’s thumb?"), better control over internal projects by involving more people, and freedom from legal entanglements.

Unfortunately, Raymond says, many businesspeople "have a belief that open-source software is not necessarily ‘professional,’ that it is shoddily made and more prone to fail than closed software.

"The Internet’s infrastructure makes the best possible refutation. The Internet is full of [free] open-source software in heavy commercial use," including Apache, Perl , BIND , sendmail , and the various TCP/IP stacks. "These are the running gears of the Internet."

Another objection to open-source software raised by corporations is lack of support, including documentation and training. However, a number of commercial vendors have sprung up to offer pre-packaged software with professional support, such as Red Hat Software (the leading commercial Linux publisher), Walnut Creek-based Walnut Creek Software (Linux, FreeBSD and other products), and C2Net Software Inc. (www.c2.net), which markets Stronghold, a commercial version of the Apache Web server.

For more information

Linux mall: www.linuxmall.com commercial versions of Linux and other Unix software and hardware.

Linux home page: www.linux.org

Newsgroup on Linux issues: news:comp.os.linux.advocacy

Linux international: www.linux.org promotes the development and use of Linux and includes Linux downloading links.

Silicon Valley Linux users group: www.svlug.org

Linux events in the Bay Area: http://hugin.imat.com/bale

Running Linux, 2nd edition, by Matt Welsh and Lar Kaufman, 1996, 650 pages, $29.95

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