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EOS Editorial — Linux Everywhere

The new fad - selling Linux

This has been an exciting month for proponents of the Linux server. Two of the world's largest software companies have started to provide Linux support and services. As you probably already know, on October 25, Oracle announced that they would be selling their own derivative of Red Hat Enterprise Linux called Unbreakable Linux. This was huge news. Then, in an even more shocking announcement, Microsoft stated on November 2 that they would be collaborating with Novell for better Windows and Linux interoperability and would even be giving away coupons for SuSE Linux Enterprise collaboration and support. And deeper into the rabbit hole we go...

There has been a lot of fanfare around these events and sorting through the repercussions of these announcements can quickly become confusing. I am sure many of you want to know: "What does this mean?" Reading between the lines, Oracle doesn't want to be a Red Hat partner any longer. Their Linux operating system product, Unbreakable Linux, as they describe it, starts by taking Red Hat Enterprise Linux and stripping out Red Hat trademarks and then adding Linux bug fixes. The kicker is they will be doing so at a much lower cost. Driving their announcement home was the resounding public support from mutual Oracle and Red Hat partners like Dell, Intel, HP, and IBM for this new initiative. That's a real kick in the teeth for Red Hat.

It's arguable that for a long time Oracle was Red Hat's most important ISV partner. Oracle and Red Hat collaborated to optimize the performance of Oracle's database products hosted on Red Hat Linux. Somewhere along the way the one-time partners must have had a falling out. Oracle's move could be considered predatory, snagging potential Red Hat customers by offering fundamentally identical products but at a lower price. Since competing on price alone is usually a bad strategy, Oracle has crowed that their advantage is in their ability to provide enterprise-grade support. Many people are skeptical that Oracle support is any better than Red Hat's but that's for the customer to decide. Also, to be fair, Red Hat has done their fair share of calling out Oracle, with Matt Szulik sending a Letter to the Editor of the Financial Times way back on April 19, addressing Oracle's Larry Ellison and asking him about his motives in potentially entering the Linux distribution business.

In their demo, during the day of their Unbreakable Linux announcement, Oracle made it clear that it was a very simple process. It took only a minute to redirect Red Hat Enterprise Linux to their servers. Oracle's chief corporate architect Edward Screven also made clear that they would be maintaining compatibility with Red Hat Linux by resynchronizing the Oracle code with every new Red Hat release. This is not really forking the code base; it's really reskinning and reallocating customers.

The second shocker was a joint Microsoft-Novell announcement of broad collaboration on Windows and Linux interoperability and support. At first blush this might seem like a good thing: Microsoft and Novell offering to make it easier for you to deploy Linux and Windows side-by-side would be a big advantage for millions of users. In addition, Novell and Microsoft even agreed that they would provide coverage for each other's customers under their patent portfolios so that Novell Linux users need not worry about intellectual property suits that Microsoft might have raised against Linux. The logical question is: "What about all the other Linux users and suppliers?"

Here are my takeaways from this recent Linux news. In the case of Oracle, it puts them at open war with Red Hat. There seems to be no way that the two companies are going to be able to collaborate given this latest course of events. Shortly after Unbreakable Linux was announced, Red Hat started running banners on their Website talking about Un-fakeable Linux - an open declaration of why you should go directly to the "source" rather than a knock-off. The addition of, in essence, a Red Hat clone, especially one aimed at the enterprise customer at a lower price, can't be good for Red Hat.

Is there a logical reason for this split among one-time partners? There is much speculation that when Red Hat acquired JBoss, it was done so during a bidding war with Oracle. The net of that transaction was that Red Hat started to expand their offerings from operating system provider to stack provider, a logical step for someone in the operating system business. However, this space is also coveted by Oracle, which has added to their scope with the acquisition of many companies, not the least of which included Siebel and Peoplesoft.

Now I'm not here to condemn anyone's actions. Plus even if I did, I am just one person. Also I have no particular grudge against any of the companies. Actually I have had some pretty positive experiences with Microsoft in the recent past, which might be considered an odd statement from an open source advocate. I would like to encourage you as an end-user, Linux customer, and member of the open source community to consider the consequences of the actions mentioned herein. Specifically, think about what it might mean when companies start cannibalizing open source projects and diluting the process that has made open source so successful.

One of the reasons Red Hat has thrived is because they have invested in Fedora (http://fedora.redhat.com), a fully free and open source development playground that allows for innovation and new features to mature. Is Oracle's product going to be as good? Do you lose some of that innovation by relegating Red Hat to an upstream provider and potentially circumventing some sales whose proceeds might otherwise have been funneled into the cultivation of purely open source software?

With regards to Novell's patent agreement with Microsoft, consider that the agreement covers only Novell and Microsoft customers. Does that mean that someday smaller Linux companies like Linspire, Mandriva, and Xandros might be buried under litigation? The Samba team has encouraged Novell to reconsider their move and has openly condemned their actions. This is sad as Novell has had a very productive and complementary relationship with many open source projects since they acquired Ximian and SuSE AG a few years back.

Despite the confusion that might be caused by these events, I believe they do bode well for Linux. Perhaps the biggest legitimization of Linux came when Microsoft started handing out coupons for Linux support. Ironically, Linux is now being endorsed by the people who started the Linux smear campaign, "Get the Facts." For years Linux was labeled an upstart and not ready for prime time. However, through their recent actions the leading operating system and database manufacturers have legitimized Linux as a server operating system. Next time you try to convince your boss that you should try to deploy Linux instead of Windows, casually point out that Microsoft is endorsing Linux. When he agrees, remember to thank Steve Ballmer (wink).

More Stories By Mark R. Hinkle

Mark Hinkle is the Senior Director, Open Soure Solutions at Citrix. He also is along-time open source expert and advocate. He is a co-founder of both the Open Source Management Consortium and the Desktop Linux Consortium. He has served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxWorld Magazine and Enterprise Open Source Magazine. Hinkle is also the author of the book, "Windows to Linux Business Desktop Migration" (Thomson, 2006). His blog on open source, technology, and new media can be found at http://www.socializedsoftware.com.

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