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What's new with HP's open source efforts

Can HP resist the pressures from Microsoft or will HP cave in as IBM did with OS/2?

(LinuxWorld) — This week's story is about how Linux is faring at post-merger/post-Bruce Perens Hewlett-Packard. First, a brief detour to make clear why that's important. I want to show you what Microsoft hopes Linux's future will be like.

Warpstock 2002 was held at the Renaissance Hotel in Austin, Texas. In some ways it was like any other computer conference: technical sessions, exhibition booths, and after-hours camaraderie. In other ways it was more like a wake or a reunion than computer conference. There were just over 100 loyal and faithful OS/2 survivalists in attendance. None dared hope the hotel's name was an omen.

Since David Barnes, the phenomenal "king of the shootouts," the man who single-handedly led Microsoft to the conclusion they could better market NT by not going mano a mano against him and OS/2, is once again an IBM employee and working in the Austin area, it seemed natural that he be a keynote speaker at the event. Unfortunately, he was out of town the weekend of the show.

My older, wiser, better-looking brother, who still supports his product on OS/2 was one of them. He very much enjoyed the conference and sat in on every session he possibly could. I sat with him in several of them.

Surprisingly, at least to me, there is still serious work being done with OS/2. Off the record, I heard an IBMer claim there were still 5 million licensed seats out there. My brother says that is down from 15 or 20 million at its peak. He also noted that the monthly meetings of the DFW OS/2 User Group in the mid-90's were better attended than the show.

Missing completely — at least as far as I could tell — were recent converts to the OS/2 way. Most of the crowd was my age or older and everyone I spoke to was a longtime OS/2 user. The saddest thing I saw was the raffling of OS/2 memorabilia when the winning ticket holder said "I have no use for that," and left the prize unclaimed. This is exactly the future that Microsoft's best brains are planning for Linux.

A word with the open source man at HP

As a result of its recently concluded merger with Compaq, Hewlett-Packard is now the largest Microsoft customer in the world. More than a few wags in the GNU/Linux and open source worlds have begun to wonder what effect the merger would have on how HP copes with the revolution. Coupled with the recent departure of Bruce Perens from HP, it has become an even more urgent question. To help dispel the seeds of doubt and worry, I asked for a little telephone time with Martin Fink to discuss the issues. Fink is not only the man who hired Perens for HP, he is HPs vice president and CTO of Business Critical Systems.

I visited with Fink last week and the first question out of my mouth was exactly that: how has the merger and the departure of Perens changed HP's Linux strategy. Fink responded by first outlining the pre-merger strategy at both HP and Compaq. At HP, there was a focus on industry-standard 32-bit and 64-bit Intel platforms as well as their own manageability and high-availability efforts. HP was not a leader in the 32-bit realm but has been on Itanium. At Compaq, the Proliant line gave them a leadership position the world of 32-bit boxes. Fink said the Linux portion of the Proliant sales is "delivering $1 billion of business," adding "it represents 15 percent of the overall Proliant business." He said HP estimates that the Linux share will rise to 20 percent in the next 12 to 18 months.

Fink points out that the pre-merger HP emphasis on Itanium and Compaq's leadership in the 32-bit world are perfect complements for each other in the post-merger firm. Nevertheless, he also points out that there will be changes ahead. With both the Alpha chip and Tandem's Non-stop computers scheduled to be transitioned to IA-64, the Linux on Alpha will no longer be a driving force.

Fink said "there was a contingent of high-performance technical computing that just loved the Alpha chip and the combination of a 64-bit Linux on high performing Alpha was really attractive for that niche market." Post-merger, Fink added, "You can expect that for those customers who have a legacy need to continue to have Linux on Alpha, we'll continue to support that, but you'll also see that we are not going to emphasize, push, or sell hard on Linux on alpha going forward."

I asked Fink if the merger was an issue with Perens' departure. He said no, that it was a mismatch of Perens' goals and those of HP's that led to Perens leaving.

Fink hired Perens about two years ago as a champion of open source within the company. Over the past six or eight months, he noted, Perens interests turned more to a role as a political activist than an open source champion. He noted that in the latter role, "Bruce absolutely did that five stars all the way. He was involved in virtually every significant open source project that was going on within HP."

Fink went on to say that it wasn't any single event that led to the split, noting that Perens was becoming more interested the anti-DMCA effort, spending time on Capitol Hill, and worrying about the patent issues before the W3C. He said "It wasn't as though any one of those events was 'ok, that's it, we're done.' It was the over time shift from open source champion to political activism."

Microsoft pressuring HP?

I tried a surprise question, asking Fink "Do your OEM licenses with Microsoft preclude the possibility of you offering dual-boot laptop and desktop boxes?" The answer was just as swift, Fink simply said, "I can't answer (questions about) the details of licenses we have with Microsoft."

I followed up with a question about how being Microsoft's largest customer might inhibit HP's Linux plays. He said, "Let's not kid ourselves... You don't sit in a meeting with Microsoft and Microsoft is all peachy keen and all happy about the fact that we are doing Linux and open source stuff."

He went on to say that Microsoft needs to compete by improving their programs and projects. He also pointed out that more than 90 percent of its customers come in the door knowing which platform and which app they want to use to solve their problem. If they say Windows, HP does Windows. If they say Linux, HP is there.

Fink told me that he gets a similar question — mainly from HP employees — more than the Windows version: "How can you be investing in HP-UX and care about Linux?" He added "We've got a huge business with HP-UX. We've got customers that are extremely loyal... You don't take, for example, a customer like Home Depot that has HP-UX deployed through their whole company, through all of their stores, and say 'By the end of the year you better be on Linux or I am out of here.'"

The real answer according to Fink is that post-merger HP is "very adept at managing multiple environments." He cited VMS support in addition to HP-UX, and Tandem in addition to the others. Making the point that it's not just a Windows versus Linux world for HP these days.

My concluding question to Fink was how — and if — the role of open source champion would now be filled at HP. Basically he said the role would be split into two: one to maintain the connection with the open source community and the other the connection to business management. Fink himself will handle the business side and Samba project leader/HP employee Jeremy Allison will maintain connections to the community.

Almost as if in anticipation of his new duties, Fink has recently published a book called "The Business and Economics of Linux and Open Source." It sounds like a primer for business management, and that is what it is intended to be both within HP and elsewhere.

Fink briefly outlined the book for me and the part that struck me as being on the mark was when he described how he decided to explain the Linux kernel, and how difficult that was to do in language that executives — CEOs and the like — could understand. Difficult, but vital.

He said, "I really came to the conclusion that if you don't understand the difference between a kernel and a distribution... It's a must... You need to understand the difference between those two things." He didn't need to spell out the fact that the kernel is licensed under the GPL.

I observed that unless a businessperson knew the difference, they would be much more susceptible to FUD about the GPL. Fink agreed, "MS is putting all sorts of FUD around: GPL is a cancer, an IP killer, etc. And my typical response is read the GPL and understand it, but at the same time read your MS license and understand it."

He stressed the following point: "The book is also written with no hype in mind, so this is not about "Linux will solve world hunger," nor "Linux is an intellectual property killer." It sounds to me as if it is an instruction manual written by a businessman with other business people in mind, to help them take advantage of what Linux and open source has to offer.

At the end of our discussion I felt as if I had a clear view of what's up with Linux and open source at HP these days. Fink says none of his Linux or open source people have lost their jobs. Given the current downtrend in the technology sector as a whole these days, that says a lot about HP's intentions.

What do you think? Will HP turn on a dime and leave Linux behind with the next winds of change, or is HP in it for the long haul? Can HP resist the pressures from Microsoft or will HP cave in as IBM did with OS/2? Share your thoughts in LinuxWorld's Talkback.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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