LJ Interviews Netscape's Jim Barksdale

Netscape's CEO talks about Open Source and Linux and why his company supports both.

Jim Barksdale is President and Chief Executive Officer at Netscape Communications Corporation, where he oversees all aspects of the company. Jim joined Netscape Communications in January 1995 and has served on the board of the company since October 1994. He also serves on the boards of 3Com Corporation, @Home Corporation, Robert Mondavi Corporation and Network Computer, Inc. Also, in 1996, Computer Reseller News named Jim Barksdale their No.1 “Executive of the Year” and PC Magazine named him “Person of the Year”. At the 1997 ETRE Conference in Budapest, he received the “Executive of the Year” award. I interviewed Jim by e-mail in October 1998.

Netscape is an Internet software company located in Mountain View, California. Its stated goal is to provide open software to people and companies for the purpose of exchanging information and conducting commerce over the Internet and other global networks. In 1996, Netscape received the “Entrepreneurial Company of the Year” award from both Stanford and Harvard Business Schools. At November's COMDEX, Linux Journal gave their 1998 “Product of the Year” award to Netscape for being the product which brought Open Source software to the attention of the world.

Marjorie: What event first brought Linux to your attention?

Jim: Our customers were asking us to expand our support for Linux. Netscape Navigator has been available for Linux since Navigator version 2.0; in fact, according to Netscape download data, the Linux version of Netscape Communicator is the most popular UNIX platform for Communicator. Customers wanted us to add support for the Linux platform to our cross-platform server software.

Marjorie: What sort of evaluation procedures did you use to decide to support Linux?

Jim: In addition to listening to our customers, we looked at independent market research. IDC (International Data Corporation) reports that Linux server software license shipments outgrew the overall server operating environment market between 1996 and 1997. Linux was the number five server operating environment overall. Datapro reports a 14 percent market share for Linux in 1997, ranking it number four among UNIX operating systems in enterprises. ZD Market Intelligence indicates that Linux is the number one UNIX operating system used by ISPs. From a user base of barely 1.5 million two years ago, Linux has grown to between five and seven million users today. Linux is supported by many commercial Linux vendors including Red Hat, Caldera, and S.u.S.E. Red Hat's sales of Linux products have doubled every twelve months, putting it on target to ship 400,000 Linux CD-ROMs this year and reach more than $10 million in sales. Those numbers do not include downloads over the Internet.

We also did a technical evaluation, which turned out to be fairly easy since many of our engineers already had Linux experience. Linux got high marks all around, technically.

Marjorie: What advantages do you see in having products that support Linux?

Jim: Customers tell us that Linux is a secure, reliable, scalable, well-supported operating system; those qualities make it ideal as a platform for our enterprise solutions for the Net economy. Linux has a very strong following among Internet users, particularly with Internet Service Providers. It is easy to automate management and administration tasks on Linux, as well as remotely manage Linux systems. In practice, Linux is extremely reliable and works well for mission-critical applications.

In addition to the commercial support available through Linux vendors such as Red Hat, Caldera and S.u.S.E, customers also get excellent support from the Internet community. Many customers mention that Linux support is better than that for more “traditional” operating systems.

One of the biggest advantages customers get is great price-performance. Linux's reliability, scalability and remote management capabilities combined with the fact that it runs on cheap PC-based hardware actually make Linux the price-performance leader.

One way companies are dealing with today's IT staff shortages is by implementing operating systems and software applications that are based on open source code, such as the Linux operating system. By working together, the Internet community of developers can create innovations that no one company could ever afford or be able to do on its own—and do so quickly and efficiently. The kind of distributed development that open source code offers lets everyone be more productive. Corporate developers, for example, can implement just the enhancements they need without having to develop the code themselves. The Internet community is also able to review the source code for security issues. This allows any security problems to be quickly and easily resolved. Many security specialists tell us that the open source nature of Linux makes it one of the most secure operating systems available.

Some people ask, “Is open source code software reliable?” It can actually be more reliable than commercial software, because it has such a large pool of developers and beta testers working with it. With enough diverse people examining the code, just about every bug is bound to be uncovered and its fix apparent to at least one developer.

Marjorie: Disadvantages?

Jim: Many enterprises are not yet comfortable with Linux. However, recent announcements of Linux support from enterprise vendors such as Netscape, Oracle, and Informix are beginning to change that. Articles like this one are also helping enterprises to see the advantages of the Linux operating system.

Marjorie: What do you find most attractive about Linux?

Jim: The most attractive thing about Linux for Netscape is that our enterprise customers are demanding it. They like Linux's security, reliability, scalability and wide support in the Internet community—qualities that make it an ideal platform for companies competing in the Net economy.

Linux is strong in many of the same areas as Netscape products, such as security and support for open Internet technologies. There are strong synergies between the Linux operating system and our enterprise software. In addition, the open source licensing of Linux means that no particular vendor controls the operating system. In other words, not only is Linux open source, it is also a truly open operating system.

Marjorie: How do you compare Linux with other operating systems?

Jim: As I mentioned before, customers comment that Linux support is better than for more “traditional” operating systems. Also, Linux is very popular in the Internet community, especially with Internet Service Providers, who need the kind of scalability, reliability and security for which Linux is known.

As far as porting our software to Linux, the experience is similar to porting to other commercial UNIX operating systems. One key difference between Linux and other operating systems, however, is that a Linux product only ships when the Internet community says it is ready, resulting in a much higher-quality product. There is no marketing pressure to ship a product before it's ready.

From a security perspective, we believe Linux is a more secure operating system because of the open source nature of the code. Because the entire Internet community is able to look at the source code, any security problems can be quickly and easily fixed.

From a development perspective, anyone can develop new features and functions, not just one vendor. With proprietary operating systems, if we or any other customer wants an enhancement, we have to convince the vendor that it should build the feature into its proprietary OS. With Linux, on the other hand, if a group of users wants to build a particular enhancement, they just build it. Linux removes the proprietary nature of operating systems and moves the control to the customer.

Marjorie: What other platforms do you support?

Jim: Today, Netscape Server products are available on many platforms, including Sun Solaris, HP-UX, Digital UNIX, IBM AIX, SGI IRIX and Windows NT.

Marjorie: Do you plan to support Linux with all your products? If not, why not?

Jim: We announced in July that all of our server products will be available on Linux. Netscape Directory Server and Netscape Internet Messaging Server will be the first products to be available on Linux and will be out by the end of the first calendar quarter of 1999. On the client side, Netscape Communicator is available on Linux now; the Linux version is the most popular of the UNIX platforms for Communicator.

Marjorie: Tell us about the products you have ported to Linux and why you chose to port them.

Jim: As I mentioned before, our clients, Netscape Communicator and Netscape Navigator, have been available on Linux for quite some time. On the server side, we are working on Netscape Directory Server and Netscape Internet Messaging Server first. We chose Directory Server because Netscape's directory service is the cornerstone of our server products. A scalable, LDAP-capable directory server is a key component to delivering our solutions for Enterprise Service Providers (ESPs) and Internet Service Providers (ISPs), our target customers.

Netscape Internet Messaging Server, our high-performance Internet messaging software that enables enterprises and ISPs to provide “mailtone-quality” messaging service to millions of employees and customers, is used by ESPs such as US West and Knight-Ridder and by ISPs such as World Access. (Similar to dialtone, mailtone-quality messaging service is a ubiquitous, universally available, standards-based messaging service that is as interoperable, scalable, reliable and manageable as the telephone system.)

Let me explain further. We all know ISPs are companies that provide individuals and firms with access to the Internet and other related services such as web site building and hosting. Enterprise Service Providers, or ESPs, are companies that deliver their core businesses as services to all of their customers and partners over the Internet. In the Net economy, the networks of both types of companies must meet the demands of thousands—even millions—of users every day, or the companies risk losing business. Together, Linux and Netscape products provide the scalability, high performance, reliability and manageability to run the world's busiest Internet sites.

Marjorie: Have you considered making any of your products Open Source?

Jim: Back in 1994, Netscape pioneered the idea of on-line distribution of its key product, Netscape Navigator. Netscape was both hailed and criticized for doing this, yet now, a mere four years later, nearly all major software vendors make their products available for download on the Internet. While software distribution on the Internet was once viewed as an unusual idea, it is now commonplace.

On January 22, 1998, in another unprecedented move, we announced that we would make the source code to our flagship client software, Netscape Communicator, freely available for modification and redistribution on the Internet. This was the first time a commercial software company allowed broad access to the source code of a major already-shipping product—in fact, one of the most popular software applications in the world. Communicator, also known as Mozilla, has been available in open source form to the entire Internet community since March 31, 1998. Not only did we rip the revenue out of Communicator when we made it free, but we also made the intellectual property of the product—the source code—available to everyone who wanted to help co-develop it. It's a great opportunity to leverage the power of the Internet and enlist an army of developers to help advance the functionality and features of the browser for all users.

Mozilla.org (http://www.mozilla.org/) provides a central point of contact and community for developers interested in using or improving the Communicator source code. We broke new ground with the licenses we drew up when we released the Mozilla code. Previous open-source software licenses have not been attractive to commercial software developers. The two Netscape licenses—the Netscape Public License and the Mozilla Public License—were crafted to appeal to three constituencies: open-source code developers, commercial developers and Netscape customers. Because the licenses would affect so many people, we put draft versions of them on the Web for comment and review before they were finalized and were able to improve the licenses by incorporating much of the feedback.

After we released the Communicator source code, we also made it available for the Netscape Directory SDK in both C and Java; this is the first open source LDAP SDK to support LDAPv3. The source code for PerLDAP is also available; PerLDAP gives Perl developers direct, integrated access to LDAP, making it easier for them to write directory-enabled applications and automate processes. The Netscape Directory SDK and the PerLDAP source code can be found at http://www.mozilla.org/directory/.

The source code for Netscape Messaging Access SDK is also available. This SDK includes a set of APIs in C and Java that enables developers to write applications accessing the services of messaging servers, such as Netscape Messaging Server, that conform to Internet messaging standards. The Netscape Messaging Access SDK can be found at http://www.mozilla.org/msgsdk/.

We may make other products available in open-source form if and when it makes sense for both us and our customers. We will evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.

Marjorie: What do you think needs to be added to Linux to make it more attractive to business users?

Jim: We need to get the word out regarding the availability of commercial software for Linux as well as the availability of commercial support for Linux. There are still too many people who think Linux means “unsupported”, and that is simply not true. There also needs to be more enterprise software available for Linux. The most obvious hole had been support from the major database vendors such as Oracle and Informix, but since these companies announced plans to port their databases to Linux, this hole is quickly being filled. Netscape is pleased to be delivering a Linux version of our client software and to be working on delivering Linux versions of our server software, starting with Netscape Directory Server and Netscape Messaging Server. We'd like to see other enterprise software vendors follow our lead.

We'd also like to see more hardware manufacturers, such as Dell, Compaq, HP and others make systems available that are preconfigured with Linux. Leaders such as Dell allow large commercial customers to order systems that are preinstalled with Linux, but we'd like to see this practice more widely adopted by the major hardware vendors.

Finally, although Linux is widely deployed, many Information Technology executives do not even know it is deployed in their own shops. We need enterprise customers to be much more vocal about their use and endorsement of Linux.

Marjorie: Linux seems to be climbing rapidly in popularity with all the PR it has gotten recently. How long do you expect that to last?

Jim: I think we're just beginning to see the development and deployment of ESP and ISP solutions and applications on Linux.

Marjorie: What do you see in the future for your company and Linux?

Jim: Eventually, we plan to make all Netscape products available on Linux.

Marjorie: Thanks for your time.

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