Linux doing well in bid for 'world domination'

 

Open source competes primarily on cost, reliability and stability, writesKarlin Lillington

The title of Linux guru Mr Alan Cox's presentation at a conference in Dublin this week is unapologetic: Creating the New World Order.

The phrase is typical of those developers who have pledged their troth to Unix-based operating system Linux and other open source and free software projects. Even when Linux was a small blip on the corporate radar screen, rather than the bona fide phenomenon it is now, Linux founder Mr Linus Torvalds regularly used the phrase "total world domination" to describe his hopes for the freely available operating system.

Mr Cox, the Welsh developer who wrote much of the core of Linux, offered a surprising keynote on copyright, patent, privacy and legal issues that never once focused on the operating system. In so doing, he emphasised what Linux developers are increasingly realising - the battles are not to be fought against traditional "enemies" such as Microsoft, with its dominant rival operating system Windows.

Instead, Linux and other open source projects are being challenged by poorly conceived international frameworks for copyright and patents, labyrinthine legal systems that aren't geared up for the issues raised by digital products, and splintering among the hugely independent open source community - the thousands of developers who often freely give time and brainpower to producing and maintaining open source software projects.

Not that there isn't plenty more Linux, open source and free software evangelising to be done, according to the speakers and participants at Guadec, the annual, international conference of GNOME developers held at Trinity College this week. (GNOME is one of the main Linux desktop packages.)

The conference is very, very open source - matching, in its slightly disorganised but passionate informality, the nature of the open source community that, once mocked, is now taken as a very serious threat by Microsoft. The software giant stands to lose most from Linux's incursions into the corporate and public sector markets that have been Windows territory for years.

Among the accomplishments is the clear shift to the mainstream by Linux, with technology partners such as Oracle and IBM.

Speakers such as Danish consultant Ms Anne Ostergaard, German government representative Mr Egon Troles and Dutch government representative Mr Arnold Reinders outlined a variety of national and pan-European initiatives that encourage states to consider open source software when tendering for information technology projects.

"Ireland is one of the only EU nations that has not done a study of open source possibilities," Ms Ostergaard says.

The Republic - especially the public sector, where big IT projects regularly happen - is just beginning to show mainstream interest in Linux and open source software.

While the Beaumont Hospital and Bord na Mona are examples of big organisations that have already implemented big open source projects, advocates within the State acknowledge awareness is low, although growing. The Republic is running about two years behind the US in its adoption of open source solutions, says Mr Braun Brelin, an open source advocate who works for Dublin consultancy OpenApp.

Open source competes primarily in three areas, he says: cost, reliability and stability.

With companies turning over their software on average every three years, he points to the cost savings of upgrading - at little or no cost - an open source product that has no licence fees. Licence fees and the high cost of software are the top IT concerns of corporate chief information officers, according to a survey cited by Mr Curtis Sasaki, Sun Microsystem's vice-president of engineering, desktop solutions, who spoke at Guadec.

Sun, which markets its own proprietary version of Unix but has also come forward to back Linux on its hardware, clearly sees Linux as another angle from which it can take on arch-rival Microsoft.

With 59 per cent of chief information officers saying they are only at the evaluation stage in considering a shift to non-Microsoft software, and 88 per cent saying Linux is what they are most interested in, Sun sees a major opportunity, Mr Sasaki says.

But the developers clearly cared most to hear what Mr Cox had to say. His pronouncements have special weight as he has been central to the development of Linux, part of a coding triumvirate that also includes Mr Torvalds and another outspoken developer, Mr Richard Stallman.

He did not address it in his talk, but most Linux advocates and industry observers are especially concerned about one particular patent and copyright issue at the moment - the lawsuit brought by SCO (which this week announced it would base its European headquarters in Dublin) against IBM.

SCO claims IBM is improperly using Unix code to which SCO owns the copyright. As part of its lawsuit, SCO, formerly Caldera, has claimed that Linux is cobbled together with SCO code and has been critical of Mr Torvalds.

Speaking in a personal capacity after his keynote, Mr Cox, who works for Red Hat, an SCO rival, was dismissive of the suit and its potential to turn organisations away from the operating system.

"Most of the companies I've talked to aren't really worried, firstly because IBM is involved with this" and IBM customers feel IBM will resolve the issue, he says. "Also, the same thing [copyright challenges\] happens all the time with proprietary software."

He also says that SCO has been reluctant to reveal the code it claims is copied, leading Mr Cox and many others to believe the claims may be difficult to defend.

He says Linux's real challenges lie elsewhere. "I think the next big challenge is going to be security models, and not just for Linux, because the way we do operating systems generally just isn't sustainable. The virus protection model just doesn't work."

Terrorist attacks in future may well be cyberattacks that take down crucial computer networks and operations, he says.