The nightmare scenario of any company thinking of investing or already committed to Linux goes something like this: as more and more vendors get behind the OS, commercial pressures will lead to fragmentation, and users end up stuck with an isolated Linux distribution.
It’s a vision that Microsoft is understandably keen to promote. In a January interview with BusinessWeek, Kevin Johnson, Microsoft's group vice-president for worldwide sales, marketing and services, gave a familiar assessment of Linux: "It has the potential to fragment like Unix did," he said.
But while the Linux community would dispute that fragmentation could ever happen, it isn't taking any chances. The Linux Standard Base (LSB), initiated in 1998, is designed not only to prevent fragmentation but to allow application makers to release a single software version certified to run on any LSB-compliant Linux distribution. For enterprises, the success of the LSB should mean the ability to switch to a different distribution and take all their LSB-compliant applications with them -- no modifications necessary.
The LSB passed a landmark in September 2004, with the release of the LSB 2.0, the first version to win the enthusiastic support of all the major Linux distributions. In November, a group of vendors called the Linux Core Consortium (LCC) announced they would jointly engineer a binary implementation of the LSB 2.0, which is to be used as the core of all the distributions of the LCC, and any other distributors who wish to take part.
But the real test will come this year, acknowledges the Free Standards Group (FSG), the organisation behind the LSB. Now that the operating system vendors are on board, ISVs must start to widely support the standard, if it's to have any real-world relevance. And months after the release of the LSB 2.0, not many big ISVs are in evidence. Jim Zemlin, executive director of the FSG, insists this year will be a turning point on that front -- he expects the body to double or quadruple membership this year, as large numbers of application vendors announce compliance plans.
Pressure from enterprises could also be essential. Some large companies, such as Credit Suisse First Boston (CSFB), have already announced they will only deploy LSB-compliant software, and those kinds of announcements could be the spur that ISVs need. "Organizations are usually well served when they adopt standards-based platforms. As the Linux suppliers offer LSB-compliant products, it will make interoperability much easier," says Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of systems software research at IDC.