First day at LinuxWorld: moving up the free software stack and other progress

by Andy Oram

Related link: http://linuxworldexpo.com/live/12/events/12BOS05A



Jacking in from the first day of the first LinuxWorld in Boston,
Massachusetts, I'll discuss the following in this blog:



Silly obligatory St. Valentine's Day reference





LinuxWorld happens to start on St. Valentine's day this year. So (like
many other superficial-minded journalists attending the conference,
I'm sure) I searched around for silly metaphors involving
St. Valentine. Oddly, I found one that was appropriate.




St. Valentine is the patron saint of beekeepers. Bees are valued and
cultivated for their honey--which is certainly a miraculous
substance--but another, lesser-known product from bees may be even
more valuable. I am referring to propolis, a kind of glue that bees
make from the wax and resins they collect. Propolis has valuable
anti-biotic properties that make it useful even today for healing
cuts, burns, and dermatological problems. It provides a general guard
against disease and infection.




We all wait expectantly for Linux to yield us its honey--the rich
variety of desktop and multimedia programs that the free software
community has created for it--but we must remember that Linux is even
more valuable for its propolis--for the inherent security of its
design and the robust operation that earned it the term "unbreakable"
from Oracle Corporation.



Microsoft's entry into free software, and other observations from OSTG





The ancient city of Jericho once experienced a crisis: its waters had
turned bad and polluted the land. The prophet Elisha, newly brought
into the role of prophet by the great Elijah, threw a jar of salt into
the water. A miracle! The water was purified, and the people could now
thrive. But strangely enough, as Elisha was leaving town, some youths
mocked him.




Why is that? Commentators suggested an answer two thousand years ago
by adding another dimension to the tale. They said the mockers were
merchants who had based their living on bringing water to sell to the
inhabitants. They were furious at Elijah for cleaning up Jericho's
water and ruining their business!




Has anything changed over two thousand years? Even now, no good deed
goes unpunished. When people contribute free software that increases
the common pool of productivity, the narrow proprietary interests that
profited from the lack of functional software strike back.




While Microsoft publicly tries to poison the open source well with
stern animadversions, it quietly tests the waters by releasing open
source projects of its own. No, I am not talking about the tangled,
encumbered Shared Source initiative. Rather, check SourceForge for
Wix
(the Windows Installer XML toolset) and
FlexWiki
(a collaborative web-based authoring environment implemented on the
Microsoft .NET platform)--two of the bona fide open source projects
that Microsoft has put up. "To their credit," says Colin Bodell of
VA Software,
the company that owns SourceForge. "They ought to be exploring open
source, and it's good that they're doing so."




Can companies open up proprietary software successfully? Many
observers say that such efforts don't work--whether because the
community doesn't see the projects as their own, or the companies put
barriers up in front of user contributions, or for other reasons--but
Bodell thinks they can. He suggests that Computer Associates, by
making Ingress open source, created a base of expertise among its
users and thereby offloaded onto the users a lot of its customer
support costs. And he referred to other projects that had reduced
support costs the same way. (I cynically pointed out that an
investment in better documentation might have achieved the same
benefits.)




Bodell is one of those who believe in the conquest of free software up
the stack. Having achieved great things in providing infrastructure,
free software will take on applications next. It is already difficult
to find any proprietary software product for which there is no free
software project trying to compete--and bit by bit, the open source
alternative is becoming more viable. Bodell cited CRM solutions
(Compiere
and
SugarCRM)
in particular. We'll see another example in the following section.




VA Software developed incrementally the list of
Open Source Technology Group
sites that are now household words (among technologically
sophisticated households):
SlashDot,
SourceForge,
Linux.com,
ThinkGeek.com,
and so forth.
An integrated vision for these offerings has evolved along with the
sites themselves.




Originally, as VA Linux, the company was searching for a way to
quickly bring into being the kinds of third-party applications that
existed for other vendors with proprietary systems. Rather than build
(slow) or buy (expensive), they decided to facilitate what the free
software community was already doing by starting SourceForge. As they
noticed other information gaps, they started sites to fill them. And
In subtle ways these sites are all integrated. For instance, a manager
might visit
ITManagersJournal.com
to find news about software that might be worth using, and pass on to
a staffer the URL that points to implementation details on
SourceForge. Postings on SlashDot (often consisting of nothing but a
URL, but modded up to the highest rating by users) take readers to
valuable information and software. Every level of potential free
software user is served, from novices (Linux.com) to developers
(SourceForge).




OSTG has just announced the milestone of registering its millionth
user. As it scaled up over the years, it's had to make some
interesting technical innovations. It has enhanced the PostgreSQL
database, and passed its changes back to the project when they would
be useful to others. It also has a clever proxying server for CVS so
that multiple CVS servers can host different projects and be accessed
by users through the same interface.



Scalix: an example of moving up the free software stack





Scalix has jumped into the competitive market for Exchange
replacements with a flexible, Linux-based email and calendaring
platform. Scalix is sufficiently powerful that one might be insulting
to call it merely an Exchange clone. And while Scalix is proprietary,
it rests heavily on open-source software.




For instance, although one of the company goals is to work so
seamlessly with Outlook that users couldn't tell when the back office
switches from Exchange to Scalix, the platform works equally well with
a number of Web browsers. For this purpose, the company has developed
a clever cross-platform development library that uses vanilla
technology such as JavaScript and style sheets to create such
sophisticated effects as tool tips and drag-and-drop. (The resulting
interface is really cool and well worth viewing a demo.) Furthermore,
while Scalix interoperates with Active Directory, it can also be used
with other LDAP servers. Its storage is built on LVM.




The Scalix company didn't place its bet on open source components in
order to provide bragging points for free software developers. (Well,
maybe they did, but that alone wouldn't be a sufficient business
model.) Rather, founder Julie Hanna Farris points out that using
these components means Scalix could focus its resources on developing
an email and calendaring platform, period. No need for reinventing the
wheel with new storage, backup, and other components.




But the pay-off for the customers is just as great as for Scalix. They
have more choice among components and don't need to follow along like
sheep when each upgrade comes along, as they do when they accept a
complex, integrated Microsoft solution. (They should, however, use a
the versions of software that Scalix has tested and certified to be
compatible.) Furthermore, if they are willing to give up the
enhancements Outlook offers and use more standard-based email
solutions, Scalix supports that in parallel with Outlook.




What does Scalix offer that would make sites choose it over free
software servers? Like many proprietary products, it offers a more
attractive and efficient graphical interface than users generally get
with the free software. For instance, trying to find an email that's
blocking a queue means, for most free software servers, hunting
through obscure directories and checking timestamps. The newest
version of Scalix lets you find the queue with a couple clicks and
look at what's on top. I was impressed with their web-based
administrative interface that supports several types of administrators
with different privileges.



Looking ahead to the rest of the conference





At LinuxWorld this year, I will probably meet other companies hungry
for the Exchange server market, along with proprietary computer
vendors making the big transition and asserting their open source
credentials, racks and racks of blade clusters, and companies offering
GUI sugar for common administrative needs. I meet them every year. But
when one makes a mark in a way that's worth noting, I'll note it
here. And I'll be on the lookout for new paradigms in free software.




St. Valentine (or one of the two other early Christian martyrs named
Valentine) was famous for healing a blind girl. He thus serves as a
good patron for LinuxWorld, which tries to progress year by year in
gradually curing the leaders in business and government of their
blindness toward the benefits of free software.




The blindness is slow to lift. Short-term thinking wins out over
strategic advantage. The importance of transparency in public
institutions' software--like transparency in other areas of public
discourse--is little appreciated. IT departments fear dislocation and
the costs of retraining above everything--even in a world of constant
innovation where people always are having to learn something new. But
change comes nevertheless. The Boston Globe announced this morning a
repository for free software for government sites.




I do not by any means ignore the enduring problems of Linux,
especially as a desktop system (I run into some new problem every
week). Nor am I blind to the new ways of thinking required to get
free software tools working together smoothly. But this is what IT
departments in what large organizations are for. It's time for
executives to open their eyes and get their IT departments to do what
they're paid to do.



1 Comments

mentata
2005-02-14 22:40:19
middleware?
As a soccer coach, I strategize to win games midfield with the halfbacks. I have a winning record.


I agree in the principle of open source moving up the stack, but it seems the majestic transition from infrastructure to application skips an important space that I think is more on the open source playing field: middleware. I will concede that this has always been an ambiguous term, but if you consider it to be the enabling software that provides the necessary abstractions for thousands of flowers to bloom, I think you can at least understand why it is distinguished from the same realm as an email client.


I perceive there is a general business culture with inertia that still expresses a need to see individual applications as line items on a budget summary with pressure-easing support contracts lined up behind them. They do care about detailed evolving requirements, but they have proprietary vendors lined up to eagerly take those particular orders. What they don't care about is what's under the hood making the functions function. Enter open source.


Consider JBoss. What problem does it solve? It may be better to ask: what problem doesn't it solve? With the emergence/resurgence of platform independence, I think middleware will be where the battle is won. For example, the real grist won't be Exchange vs. Evolution/Scalix/Thunderbird/etc. so much as it will be something like J2EE vs. .Net, AD vs. OpenLDAP, or Sharepoint vs. the inevitable OS alternative(s). Win the middle with a closed solution, and the application space will get strong-armed in winner-take-all fashion as we've seen before.


If, on the other hand, the open source movement takes the middle, then it's winner be all. Considering middleware is the heart of innovation, who do you think has the odds at taking the flag? Sorry Redmond, my money is with the renegades.