SCO Forum: This ain't no trade show

Summary:SANTA CRUZ, Calif. -- SCO Forum, a dozen-year-old tradition with the world's most prolific supplier of commercial Unix, is like no conference or industry confab you'll ever attend.

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. -- SCO Forum, a dozen-year-old tradition with the world's most prolific supplier of commercial Unix, is like no conference or industry confab you'll ever attend.

Part pep rally, part study session, part sales pitch, and part schmoozefest, Forum has a far different atmosphere than any conventional trade show. In addition to keynotes from the usual industry suspects, previous Forums (or is that Fora?) have brought the likes of Dilbert creator Scott Adams and various rock bands to the secluded hills of the UC Santa Cruz campus. If nothing else, what sets this gathering apart from what most Linux fans are used to is that this one actually has a significant female component -- a certain indicator of the SCO crowd's advanced maturity.

Traditionally, the venue has been a place for the SCO community to come together; where VARs, staff, trainers and end users congregate to meet in a casual environment (neckties are a no-no) to learn, meet and generally pat each other on the back for doing the right thing by going Unix, going SCO.

This year, however, it wasn't quite the same. With the Caldera purchase of SCO just weeks old, everyone was still digesting the news. A significant contingent from Caldera was here to listen and to be heard, and to calm the uneasiness of an SCO community understandably nervous about the takeover.

I'm not sure it had completely sunk in, to those assembled, that the company known as SCO will no longer exist very soon. Most of its Unix-related assets, as well as its worldwide infrastructure and development teams will go to Caldera. Once the deal is finalized, the company will become the top Linux vendor in terms of staff size, global reach and revenue. Caldera will have rights to use the SCO tree logo and the letters SCO in the marketing of existing products, though it's not certain how long the SCO branding will stick around.

What's left of SCO will be renamed after its main remaining property, Tarantella Inc. This company will own more than 25 percent of Caldera, and will retain property rights and most royalty revenues for its venerable OpenServer OS. As a result, this year's Forum saw a curious mix of people wearing Tarantella, Caldera and SCO clothing; it was hard to tell sometimes who was going from which company to which.

The mood was cautiously upbeat. The atmosphere was full of older folk trying to sound younger and young folk trying to sound older. "Extreme" bicycle stunts were served up on the same entertainment plate as the Byrds' Roger McGuinn. Anyone who couldn't identify with one at least had the other.

Among the tech sessions, the marketing sessions and the keynotes, a few issues seemed to be slowly falling into place. The way Caldera will position UnixWare relative to its Linux products seems the most clear: A new software package will offer a full Linux personality for UnixWare, making it look (to those who want it) like a Linux system that runs Linux applications (without emulation), that just happens to have a UnixWare kernel underneath rather than a Linux one. The Linux Kernel Personality for UnixWare will certainly blur the distinction between Linux and Unix like nothing before. Caldera seems ready to pitch Linux for most small business, Internet and desktop needs, while boosting a Linux-compatible UnixWare into the large systems arena where Linux isn't expected to be a player, even after kernel 2.4 comes out.

The Tarantella folk certainly know what they have to do -- get the message out about their multi-platform connectivity middleware that's facing stiff competition from Microsoft and Citrix. Those who remain with Tarantella -- and that includes SCO CEO Doug Michels -- have a tough job but they can focus on it.

Also getting nailed down by its participants (SCO and IBM, mainly) is the OS-formerly-known-as-Monterey, hyped at Forum as AIX 5L ("L" for Linux, naturally). Mark my words, there's going to be friction a-plenty between AIX 5L and its supposed blood brother UnixWare as their futures don't seem to be in very good sync with each other right now. But this is easily a story unto itself.

For all that's getting settled, much remains to be figured out. The biggest challenge, of course, is figuring out how to turn two money-losing companies into one winner, especially when the new owners have a habit of giving their core products away. Financial analysts will scrutinize Caldera more than ever, wondering how it's going to pay for all the infrastructure it's just acquired. Pessimists are plentiful, and neither Caldera nor SCO have been considered leaders in their fields or darlings of the geek crowd. Furthermore, sending out a message that will simultaneously appease analysts, resellers and open source purists may well be impossible.

It seems almost a certainty that some personnel shrinkage will occur at SCO, but nobody will speculate how much. Expect something between significant and substantial. (I was told about one SCO exec who is the subject of a subtle campaign to convince Caldera not to keep him.) Then there are some areas of redundancy, such as training and services, where I expect the SCO system to be integrated into Caldera's style. Some bumps will no doubt accompany the process.

Caldera will have to nail down what CEO Ransom Love called "open access," and hope that the fog surrounding the term will lift faster than the mist that hung over the large "quarry" area throughout Love's keynote. Right now it seems as if UnixWare licensees will be given access to source code but won't be allowed to redistribute it. I'm not yet certain how this will work -- and so far, apparently, neither is Caldera.

Which license(s) will Caldera use for the code it releases? Which parts of UnixWare will it completely open source? And which parts will it resell as proprietary Unix/Linux accessories? These and other questions are still very much up in the air. For instance, the company's proud new Cosmos system management tool, the subject of an entire session at Forum, is ready for beta testing. Yet the company isn't even certain what license or price will accompany Cosmos once it's ready to ship.

And then there's OpenServer.

This one is the biggest question mark. Of all the products between the two companies, this ancient yet stable OS has been SCO's biggest revenue generator according to most SCO insiders I spoke to. Yet under the deal, the-company-formerly-known-as-SCO keeps most of OpenServer's revenue while Caldera is merely in charge of distributing it. Caldera thus has far less incentive to do as much with OpenServer as it does with its UnixWare and Linux products. The challenge here is for Caldera to make an easy (and inevitable) migration path from OpenServer to OpenLinux while not angering OpenServer's loyal user and VAR base in the process. But there's a heavy inertia factor at play and current OpenServer users will not likely give it up easily.

Still, despite all the unsettled issues, the mood at Forum was extremely positive. Some people said that the new Linux blood was just what SCO needed, occasionally forgetting who was buying who. Most were fully ready to give Caldera the benefit of the doubt while the fog slowly lifts, certainly in deference to the candor and visibility displayed by Love and the other Caldera executives on hand.

In all, this trip reminded me of one of the tenets I learned as a philosophy undergrad: "The more you learn, the more you realize what you don't know." That feeling was abundantly evident at Forum, a product of the multiple culture shocks that resonated throughout the week mixed in with some partying, technical enlightenment, and circulation among other enthusiastic SCOers and Calderans.

To keep some sense of stability, vendors in the low-key booths still hawked their serial ports and databases, happy to be selling to both the Linux and Unix crowd at the same event and otherwise oblivious to the culture shock surrounding them. Most vendors had significant amounts of swag (aka giveaways), from clothing to miniature Etch A Sketches to seat cushions. It was much easier to score stuff here than at most tradeshows, and event staff even did Webcasts about the hunt for stuff.

In all, the cheer overpowered the unease, and the atmosphere of the event seemed almost calculated to keep spirits up. One thing's for certain; Love confirmed the event would return next year, to reassemble the Caldera/SCO faithful and rally the troops again.

I can't wait.

Are you ready to say goodbye to SCO as we know it? Tell Evan in the TalkBack below or in the ZDNet Linux Forum. Or write to Evan directly at evan@starnix.com.

Topics: Operating Systems, Hardware, Linux, Software

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