Questions answered at LinuxWorld

by Andy Oram

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Two days ago I laid out
that I would ask exhibitors and attendees at LinuxWorld 2004 in San
Francisco. Some of my questions required too much intense technical
discussion, considering that LinuxWorld is a vendor's event. But when
I did manage to find people with the requisite marketing or technical
insights, here are the answers I came up with.


A number of attendees were surprised to see InstallShield (a company
bought by Macrovision) at LinuxWorld. InstallShield, because its
splash screen displays whenever a Windows user installs new software,
is one of the most recognized brands in computing after Microsoft
itself. But InstallShield has had cross-platform install tool for
several years. Promoters of desktop Linux should welcome the
brainless simplicity InstallShield brings to software installation.

"configure; make; make install" puts binaries and libraries
in appropriate directories. Packages go further and record
dependencies on other software (until, as I've found so often, the
package management system corrupts its own database). But even after
installing a package, you still have to do such routine house-keeping
as adding an item to a menu or setting up the application to be
triggered automatically by a click on the right file.

Free software developers should be able to figure out how to do what
InstallShield does, but they don't feel the need and don't see the job
as a sexy one. So it's nice to see InstallShield here, and to find out
that it's drawn a lot of interest from commercial software vendors
thinking of providing Linux products.


Some rivalry around the 2.6 kernel has popped up. Everybody is fairly
agreed that it's a major step forward for Linux and provides a much
better experience for data crunchers, servers, and desktops alike. The
question is: how much 2.6 is enough?

Red Hat, eager to bring out Red Hat Enterprise Linux, back-ported 2.6
features to its version of the 2.4 kernel because 2.6 hadn't been
released yet. SUSE (I think I can still call it by that name--Novell
is not yet ready to retire it) came out a bit later and therefore ran
2.6, plain and simple. Naturally, Novell claims that's more reliable.

IBM, which markets both Red Hat and SUSE, finds 2.6 multithreading,
asynchronous I/O, and scaling to 16 processors to be particularly
valuable. These features are useful for large databases such as DB2
and Oracle, as well as enterprise applications such as SAP and

My conversation with IBM focused entirely on these big-metal
applications. Surprisingly, while vendors still promote the idea of
Linux on the desktop, I see less hype about it at this show than at
the past couple LinuxWorlds. The vendors seem to be looking for loot
in the areas of servers, databases, and massive data storage.

Take, for instance, Unisys, one of several companies that one is
surprised to see reinventing themselves and participating in this
show. Their product provides anywhere from a few tens of gigabytes to
many terabytes of storage with dynamic repartitioning. (If
/home fills up, just add more space.) Unisys claims to be
commoditizing--that is, providing on the x86 and Linux--a large and
flexible storage solution that up till now was available only on
high-cost hardware and proprietary operating systems.

Another example of competitors in this space is Pogo, which offers
RAID in a box to Linux, along with server and cluster products.

SnapAppliance creates a NAS controlled by a Linux box and storing up
to 30 terabytes over Ethernet and iSCSI. They claim to be the only
commercial NAS using Linux. And their product is certified by
Microsoft--thus allowing Linux to go thigh-by-thigh with Microsoft

I asked in my
earlier blog
whether compiler optimizations could compensate for bloated programs.
The open-source PathScale EKO compiler suite (distributed by AMD, but
also used by Intel and Sun) is reported to achieve 15 to 40 percent
improvement over its competition, including gcc. PathScale
includes such advanced optimizations as inter-procedural analysis.
(This means the compiler can look across multiple functions to look
for ways to conserve values of constants or reuse code, whereas most
compilers stop optimization at the boundary of a function.)

PathScale is an interesting case of the power of free software to
spread. Its core, where the most powerful optimizations occur, was
developed by SGI and released as free software. AMD ported the
back-end to Opteron, and added a front end to provide all gcc

It should also be noted that the Portland Group has a new version of
PGI Workstation, numbered 5.2, which shows an average gain of 10% in
optimization over the previous version, and as much as 25% gain on
many popular applications


Xandros demonstrated their determination to take their desktop Linux
to the enterprise by showing off their installation system. Like
several other vendors, they want to make it trivial to distribute an
operating system, an application, or an update to dozens or hundreds
of systems.

Even easier, perhaps, than distributing software is to keep it on
central servers and put users on thin clients that run all software
over the network from the servers. This is the goal of the non-profit
Linux Terminal Server Project, but there are commercial vendors with
similar schemes in mind.

Wyse, famous for the green screens of the pre-PC era, has reinvented
(and rereinvented) itself and comes to LinuxWorld offering thin Linux
clients. These come fully loaded with a 2.6 Linux kernel and all the
software needed to boot (so that administrators need to perform only
standard configuration on their servers). The new Wyse 5150 has lots
of ports, runs an x86-compatible AMD Geode and is sold for a few
hundred dollars. As a thin client, it works equally well with a
Windows or Linux server.

Wyse estimates that, of the 1.5 million thin clients sold per year,
20% run Linux. The market for thin clients is currently growing at an
annual rate of 60%. Government, finance, travel, and retail operations
are Wyse customers. The systems also meet the
requirements for 17-inch true-color displays at many European sites.


The Linux Professional Institute--which has delivered over 59,000
exams, and won the Linux Journal award for best certification program
so consistently that the journal discontinued that award--is now
considering a range of desktop certification exams. They inquired of
desktop Linux vendors how these companies expected new users to get
the training they need to jump in productively, and discovered that
the companies had no plans or suggestions to offer. But there do seem
to be training programs that provide such material, and LPI is trying
to promote these programs.


Still looking over your shoulder at possible lawsuits concerning free
software? Indemnification is offered by Novell and others. Open Source
Risk Management, having decided the SCO threat is toothless, started
looking at patent problems. Their findings, announced August 2, claim
that 283 patents might be used in the future to threaten Linux. None,
however, have been validated by the courts, so they might well be
dismissed as trivial or obvious if used. The finding might seem
self-serving, because it supports the OSRM offer of indemnification,
but it seems to me balanced and free of fear-mongering.

The other side of copyright infringement is the frequent unauthorized
incorporation of free software into commercial products. Karen Faulds
Copenhaver--Executive VP and General Counsel for Black Duck Software,
which provides companies with tools for finding infringement in their
own code--points out that corporations may find it increasingly
worthwhile monitor their software use because their source code is
getting wider distribution. Inspired by the free software movement,
many customers are demanding source code when they license commercial
software. (This very impetus lies behind Microsoft's shared source
program.) Since more eyes will be able to see the vendor's source
code, the possibility increases that copyright infringement will be
found. Let's hope that free software continues to spread and that
proprietary software vendors feel the need to show good citizenship.

2004-08-05 22:54:32
Free software developers have already figured it out
Andy, about the following statement: Free software developers should be able to figure out how to do what InstallShield does, but they don't feel the need and don't see the job as a sexy one.
I think free software developers have already figured it out -- in fact, they've figured out something much better: complete package management systems &xe0; la Debian's apt-get, complete with GUI front-ends, as Kyle Rankin points out in his InstallShield Under Linux blog.
2004-08-06 05:54:49
Off base on reason corporations are requesting source...
Corporations are increasingly requested the code not for escrow, not inspection and/or modification (which is usually forbidden by the licensing). Its a way to protect the consumer from the business tribulations of a seller (and is an advantage of OSS that you don't hear much about).