Linux for Suits: How Linux Gets Down to Business

by Jason Schumaker

I spotted Tux walking down Figueroa Street, just north of the convention center in downtown Los Angeles. I could see only his head, bobbing above the crowd as he walked through a maze of convention-goers. I was spray-painting "Linux Rules" on a Windows 2000 bus stop poster, waiting for lunch to end. Tux was across the street, and as he drew closer, I noticed something rather odd: he was wearing a suit! Complete with tie, vest and a briefcase dangling from the two "fingers" of his left "hand". I dropped the spray can, and set out after him.

I caught him while he waited for the light to change. We had met on a number of occasions, and reminisced as we walked. He was in town to meet with various business professionals, hence the suit, he explained. I was in LA for the "Linux for Suits" panel discussion, sponsored by Linux Journal. The April 6th event, organized by Doc Searls (Senior Editor of LJ) and myself, quietly invaded Spring Internet World, intent on informing the "suits" that Linux is ready to get down to business.

So there I am, walking into the convention center with Tux. We're both dressed to the nines, me in my stylishly vintage black suit, him in an impeccably tailored Armani three-piece. We looked smooth, but felt a bit uncomfortable. Suits aren't part of Linux. Or are they? Tux pointed out that "relations between the Open Source community and business professionals are still a bit awkward". We shook hands and set out on different paths, intent on making a change.

Doc Searls is the mastermind behind Linux for Suits. We first debuted the event at Fall Internet World in New York City. Linus Torvalds and Eric Raymond were present, as were a number of big-name Linux executives (read my report here). The show was a success; we looked forward to LA. Attendance at the LA show wasn't as good as in NYC, but this didn't come as a shock. Internet World is exactly what it claims to be: a trade show dedicated to anything related to Internet development and use. We didn't aim Linux for Suits at Linux users; we targeted the event at Internet World for non-users and potential users of Linux.

Linux for Suits exists solely to help educate business professionals about Linux and how it can be used effectively in their business model. The event was keynoted by Larry Augustin (President, CEO and Director of VA Linux Systems), a key figure in the Linux business world. And with good reason. Larry spoke eloquently and used his time well. He targeted his words to any audience members that might be either unfamiliar with Linux, or to those whose companies are interested in learning more about Linux.

Larry began by asking for a show of hands: "How many of you use Linux? How many of you don't?" He then pointed out that if you use the Internet, chances are, you use Linux. "Linux is the leading operating system running the Internet." His slides illustrated that Linux owns 31% of the server market share, compared to 24% for Windows NT and 17% for Solaris. He went on to explain that Linux is not a unique case; that it succeeds not because it is Linux, but because it is open-source software. He added that "Apache's current market share is 60%, well ahead of Microsoft's ISS, while Sendmail holds 80% of the e-mail market." All three are perfect examples that the open-source business model can be successful.

But why should anyone care? Larry says it is "because open-source software development is the future of how software will be developed." Companies are switching from proprietary software to open source for four reasons: open source has multiple developers, it is customizable, development is rapid, and the TCO (total cost of ownership) is lower. He used QuakeForge, one of the first development projects on SourceForge (http://www.sourceforge.net/), to illustrate how effective and efficient open-source development can be. "After the initial version was released, we began seeing bug reports within two hours, fixes within three. When's the last time you had someone from Microsoft call you back within three hours?" A good point.

Proprietary software companies release patches and bug fixes when they want and if they want. Users and developers have no control, and Larry, along with the rest of the Open Source community, expect this to change as more people realize the advantages to open-source software development. Larry wrapped up by recommending that companies without an open-source strategy get to work, as their competition might already be well ahead.

Below is a brief summary of the remainder of the Linux for Suits event. The discussions were organized by having five panelists and a moderator for each of the five topics covered. The moderator begins by briefly introducing each panelist. The panelists then quickly explain how their respective companies are using Linux and open-source software. The moderator then gets the discussion going by asking a question ... and it flows from there, with the final 10-15 minutes set aside for audience Q&A. Each panel ran for an hour, which restricts what I am able to report on. However, we will soon make the complete audio recordings available for free at ON24.com--imagine that!

Why is Linux Storming the Market?

The first panel was moderated by Doc Searls and included the following:

  • Don Harbison, Worldwide Product Marketing Manager for Enterprise Servers, Platforms & Performance, Lotus.

  • Larry Augustin, CEO, VA Linux Systems.

  • Dale Fuller, President and CEO, Inprise Corporation.

  • Arthur Tyde, Executive VP and Founder, Linuxcare.

  • Bernie Thompson, President of Linux Division, Applix, Inc.

This panel began on a humorous note, as Dale Fuller flashed a "Give Windows the Bird" slide during his introductory remarks. The discussion did well to explain the rapid rise of Linux. Art Tyde attributed much of the success to a wide range of support outlets, including Linuxcare, which hires "real engineers" to assist with customer service needs. Using such knowledge helps Linuxcare handle anywhere from "700-1500 incidents per day, with an average resolution time of three minutes." Art did admit that "tracking down engineers with good communication skills is difficult."

Bernie Thompson worked at Microsoft, developing device drivers to work with Windows NT. He doesn't see the proprietary model as being very efficient, certainly not compared with open source. With open source, there are literally thousands of developers, while only a handful of people have seen the source code to Windows. "Consequently," Bernie says, "there are whole parts to Windows that are a mess."

Software development isn't all glamour and glitz. Certain parts are tedious, even boring. With such a limited developer pool, certain areas of Windows get neglected, causing bugs and producing the Blue Screen of Death. Linux, with a potentially limitless pool of developers, nearly always has someone working to keep code clean, efficient and progressive. Bugs are reported and fixed quickly.

These are just some of the reasons why Linux is storming the market. Of course, all the panelists agreed that the main reason is community. As Larry Augustin put it, "Great software is produced by people who love their work." Open-source software projects tend to be led by fully dedicated people. Volunteering seems to work that way. This discussion was not just a sales pitch, however. There are inherent problems with open-source development. Bernie Thompson pointed out that sometimes open-source development doesn't operate so smoothly.

This is true, and businesspeople need to understand that open source (and Linux) will not always provide the best solution. What this panel showed me, and hopefully the audience, is that there really are companies using Linux.

The Open-Savvy Enterprise

Doc moderated this panel as well, which consisted of:

  • Brian Behlendorf, CTO, Collab.net.

  • Russell Pavlicek, Linux Technology Consultant, Compaq.

  • Bonnie Crater, President and CEO, OpenSales.

  • Cliff Miller, CEO, Turbolinux.

  • Bernie Thompson, President of Linux Division, Applix, Inc.

  • Richi Jennings, Open-Mail Linux Manager, Hewlett-Packard.

Linux has come a long way in just under ten years. Each speaker on this panel works for a company that is having success using Linux and open-source software. The panelists discussed distribution channels, licensing and perceptions of Linux and Microsoft (among other things). The idea was to help companies understand what it means to be open source. This involves knowing how the GPL or LGPL works, knowing how to treat your employees and how the future of software development is shaping up. I encourage you to listen to the complete session when it is available.

Doc likened the software industry to the construction industry. "You can't name the Microsoft of the construction industry," he said. Then he pointed out how the software industry uses much of the same language found in the construction trade. We "build" web sites, using various "tools" and so on. The open-source development model is all about choice. More and more, there is an endless number of places to grab software. Windows NT is not the only choice. With the freedom to copy, modify and distribute software, boundaries begin to fall away. Brian Behlendorf said, "This provides us with the freedom to make the best product for our customers." This is a freedom which people, certainly businesses, are flocking to. Cost is only a fraction of the issue. Freedom to get what you need from the software is the main attraction.

Cliff Miller has Turbolinux dominating Linux sales in China, a country that is considering adopting open-source software as a country standard. Doc asked Cliff how he thought the Chinese perceived Microsoft. Not exactly an easy question, but when you think about his comment that "Microsoft is selling about 1 out of every 100 copies of Windows distributed", you begin to get the idea. Bernie Thompson theorized that the reason for this could be that the Chinese government is wary of building its IT solutions around one US company. I would add that Microsoft is capitalism in the purest of forms. Perceptions aren't necessarily reality, but in this case... Even our own government has had enough. Microsoft and other proprietary software companies are going to need to change strategies in order to compete with the world of Open Source.

Brian Behlendorf, who helped in the early days of the Apache project, uses BSD for some software development and Linux for some. He uses the best software for each specific need, which is one of the underlying fundamentals of open source. You have the freedom to look for the solutions that best meet your needs. With proprietary software, your freedom is limited. Brian nicely stated that he "can't wait until the people developing OS software age and get to a point where they are able to influence the political side." Bonnie Crater added, "I believe that most of the great software companies of the future will be open source."

Building the New Infrastructure

Craig Burton, a well-known Internet strategist and all-around quick wit, directed these folks in an interesting discussion of infrastructure design from an open-source viewpoint.

  • Richi Jennings, OpenMail.

  • Ransom Love, CEO, Caldera.

  • Perry Evan, CEO, Webb, Inc.

  • Vivek Mehra, CTO and Co-founder, Cobalt Networks.

  • Michael Olson, VP Sales and Marketing, Sleepycat Software.

Craig gave a brief but slick presentation, which focused on the "Burtonian Tech Matrix". The graphic displayed was a box divided into four equal parts. On top was open source; at the bottom, closed source. To the right was public domain, and to the left, proprietary. With this simple graphic, Craig made it easier to see where companies fell in terms of their business/development model. Perry Evans was taken with the "matrix" and half-joked, "If ever there was a model in the lower-left quadrant ... AOL is it." We could certainly add Microsoft to that, while Apache would be a good example of top right.

All of the companies represented on the panel were partially open and partially closed. Ransom Love related that Caldera uses both open and closed development models, saying, "Sometimes it is best to develop in a closed environment. After the product has been deemed viable, we turn it loose." Michael Olson of Sleepycat makes a library for data management. He says, "We combine the GPL with the LGPL." You can use his product, but you are required to release your product as open. If you don't open the code, you can still use his database ... you just have to pay a fee for keeping your product closed." Craig asked Richi, "What's open about OpenMail?" Richi answered that "we work with as many platforms as possible." OpenMail is not exactly open sourced. The Linux version can be downloaded for free, but after six months, you are required to pay a licensing fee, good for up to 50 users. "We make money off the support," he added.

So, there are a number of ways to use open-source software. It doesn't mean you have to give everything away, but it does require you to play a bit nicer with the community around you.

High Availability Clustering for Linux

Chris DiBona, VA Linux employee and Linux evangelist, moderated this panel.

  • Vincent Schiavo, President, Polyserve.

  • John Goebel, VA Linux Systems.

  • Russell Pavlicek, Linux Technology Officer, Compaq.

  • Cliff Miller, CEO, Turbolinux.

  • Richi Jennings, OpenMail.

I have to admit that most of what was discussed by these guys was over my head. This is something best experienced through audio. The majority of the talks centered around what Linux is lacking in terms of supercomputing. John Goebel wants a solid global file system, which all panelists agreed was necessary if Linux is to continue to succeed. Vince noted that "we are working to develop a journaling file system." Cliff Miller would like more focus on file systems and storage, as well as data synchronization. The main problem seems to be, and I agree with John, that "the Open Source community lacks in the area of addressing 'non-sexy' problems."

This is an inherent problem with open-source development. The only way these problems get addressed is if someone takes the initiative to get the grunt work done. Perhaps all the money being thrown around the community will help to rectify this problem. The development of a management system for easier administration of, say, 1000 nodes, will be crucial to Linux's continued success in clustering and running mission-critical web applications.

Getting Out of the Box

The last panel of the day was certainly less technical. Moderated by Doc Searls, this group discussed the future and current state of Linux in the surging embedded market.

  • Lyle Ball, Lineo.

  • Jeremie Miller, Founder, Jabber.org.

  • Kelly Herrel, VP of Marketing, Cobalt Networks.

  • Edward Ghafari, COO, Coollogic.

  • Bruce Polatnick, President and CEO, Boxx International.

In many minds, embedded devices are where it's at for Linux. The scalability makes it a wonderful candidate. Jeremie Miller sees hand-held devices as the future of communication. His company is working to bring instant messaging to Linux users (insert applause). This is welcome news. Linux is moving rapidly into a dizzying array of potential uses. Bruce, whose company makes absolutely the coolest laptop I have ever seen, envisions a Jetsons-like world where, for example, "your alarm clock goes off 30 minutes early because it was notified that traffic was bad. Or a toilet that checks glucose levels to help identify early signs of diabetes."

Most of us have heard of the refrigerator running on Linux, designed to have the milk at your door before you even realize it was gone. Edward Ghafari brought up the point that most people tend to think that the Internet needs to be accessed from a PC. This is no longer true. Phones, Palm Pilots and more are allowing for a more mobile use of the Internet and computing. Edward says, "computing needs to be as easy as using a toaster or VCR. It just needs to be easy."

Doc asked the panelists to define "appliance" and to elaborate on how embedding Linux affects user control of the operating system. Does Linux become less hackable when embedded? Kelly Herrel pointed out that a user can still access the Linux kernel in the Qube through the "back door. Telnet in, or command-line yourself to death." Don't mind if I do! However, the average user can't tell that an appliance is running on Linux, and the average user will not be able to access the kernel. What's important is that many of these appliances will be running Linux, which means the Open Source community is going to have a huge hand in the future of embedded technology.

Wrappin' it Up

The show was a success, in that it served a vital purpose to the Open Source community by encouraging discussion. Doc Searls and the rest of the speakers should be commended for their dedication to their belief in Linux and open-source software. Doc and myself began organizing the panels months in advance. We asked, sometimes begged and often threatened our colleagues to participate. None of them are paid, including travel expenses. Linux Journal doesn't make money by sponsoring the event. I am telling you this to make apparent a key point as to why Linux will become a complete business solution: because it isn't always about money. These speakers took time out of their lives to talk about Linux, because they truly believe in the product. We all do. We all want Linux to continue its successful rise in the computing world. We certainly don't mind making a bit of money along the way, but right now we are still a community striving for acceptance, for success. We're willing to forego some of the profit-making to see this "thing" succeed. A bit "hippie-like", perhaps, but open-source software involves sharing and trust, even emotion. I'm not a hippie, but hey man, I think that's groovy. Linux will survive and continue to grow because we want it to.

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