Linux for sale in San Francisco

commentary Any Linux developer in a coma for the last six years who awoke to the sight of LinuxWorld's trade floor in San Francisco this week would most likely have suffered a severe stroke.It's not a hobbyists' operating system anymore; the fusion between the geek realm and big business is now a reality, like it or not.

commentary Any Linux developer in a coma for the last six years who awoke to the sight of LinuxWorld's trade floor in San Francisco this week would most likely have suffered a severe stroke.

It's not a hobbyists' operating system anymore; the fusion between the geek realm and big business is now a reality, like it or not. The towering, brightly lit, plastic, steel and glass monuments of commerce erected for the conference mock the tiny little stands belonging to the members of the ".org pavilion," the groups that made open source software what it is today.

The Free Software Foundation sits in its tiny little stand like a circus freak, while IBM and HP sales executives "work" potential customers drawn into their sales trap by the dazzling lighting, like flies to one of those buzzing bug zappers in a fish and chip shop. Smiling their toothy, American smiles and dispensing their business cards from gleaming card holders, Linux is the pitch. Linux is money. Bzzzzz CRACK!

Not far from the Free Software Foundation's stand sits two young men with laptops at the Fedora Project stand. The Fedora Project, for those who don't remember, is what became of RedHat's free Linux distribution. RedHat itself, peddling its commercial Linux products, built a flashy stand that merged seamlessly with the trade-floor monstrosities of companies like Intel, AMD and Unisys.

Not everyone is convinced companies like IBM and Novell will make happy bedfellows with the penguin brigade. Even a "we're your friends" announcement by IBM was greeted with scepticism and suspicion from sectors of the open source community.

Following the revelation that the Linux kernel could theoretically be challenged by as many as 283 US-government issued patents, Nick Donofrio, Big Blue's senior vice president of technology and manufacturing, rode in on his white horse and declared "IBM has no intention of enforcing its patent portfolio against the Linux kernel," and challenged the rest of the IT community to give similar assurances.

While the challenge amounted to nothing more than a sound-byte and just a little grandstanding, IBM's not-so-surprising announcement raised the eyebrows of well-known Linux "enthusiast" -- they don't like it when you call them "zealots" -- Bruce Perens, who is the executive director of the Linux desktop consortium.

He believes it's only a matter of time before the "patent storm" begins, and doesn't want to take Donofrio's comments as gospel just yet. "Frankly I would like a signed document to that effect, because managements change," he told journalists at a press conference following Donofrio's announcement. "[IBM] are one of the companies lobbying for increases in software patenting in Europe and other countries... like any corporation they have a multiple personality disorder."

Winning hearts and minds certainly seems to be on the cards. When IBM announced it was giving away Cloudscape, a small footprint, Java based, embedded, relational database (that's a mouthful), to the open source community, it wheeled out the Apache Software Foundation's nerd rock-star Greg Stein to talk about the move.

He may look like he needs a do-over courtesy of the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy cast, but Stein's got clout with developers. Come to think of it, a large chunk of the attendees at the US-based Linux love-fest make the comic book store owner in The Simpsons look like the next James Bond. Greasy comb-overs and tie-dyed t-shirts have thankfully been vanquished from all the lands of Earth, bar LinuxWorld San Francisco. Shudder.

Fashion king or not, Stein represents Apache, the ubiquitous (ubiquitous adj. - A word that was good until it became ubiquitous.) free Web-server shipped with most distributions of Linux.

"We're one of the primary focal points of the Java open source community," he told journalists after the announcement was made. "From a pure Java standpoint we've got this whole range of technologies but no embedded fully functional embedded database."

"We have some other database technology at the Apache Software Foundation but it doesn't have the ... production quality of Cloudscape," he added, before outlining Apache's commitment to building a community around the technology so it will survive as an open source project.

While Stein's comments will legitimise IBM's "gift" as a positive move, some will ask if Big Blue's altruistic streak will continue. And hey, if it's not tokenism, why not throw DB2 -- IBM's flagship enterprise-class database -- into the open source community?

Because the company makes a truckload of money out of DB2, that's why. If Cloudscape was pulling in that sort of dough there's no way IBM would have given it away. But as it turns out Cloudscape was inadvertently picked up along with Informix back in 2001, and while it's used in 70 IBM products, it isn't exactly a cash cow.

Does this make IBM's gift an act of hypocrisy? No. The fact is it's Intellectual Property the company is prepared to relinquish control over in order to stimulate the development of Java applications that utilise embedded databases. It also means Cloudscape will no doubt be developed further, increasing in quality and robustness. That means IBM products that use it as a component will benefit from the hours of free labour that will no doubt pour into the database when its source code is thrown into the public domain.

Big Blue isn't ready to burn all its patents yet, but it's learning you can work the open-source system for mutual benefit, quite unlike the strategy of SCO, described by RedHat chairman and chief executive Matthew Szulik during his keynote speech as "the industry's version of the Soprano's". Szulik, who's speech was pretty, well, weird -- he spent much of his keynote using an analogy with fishing, which didn't really work that well -- said the group had thrown "broken glass on the highway of progress".

The funny thing is he never actually uttered "SCO". The whole LinuxWorld conference has a case of "don't mention ze war". IBM execs have been trained to say "there's been a lot of press about it but it hasn't affected customer's deployment plans" whenever those dirty three letters pass the lips of a journalist. And Szulik's choice to talk about SCO without actually naming them was telling.

After several days observing the conference one cannot help but to conclude that there is one thing everyone definitelyagrees on at LinuxWorld in San Francisco. From Red Hat, to Novell, to IBM to the purist anti-corporate, socks-and-sandals, mullet-sporting coders maintaining the core of the Linux operating system.

They all hate SCO.

Patrick Gray travelled to LinuxWorld in San Francisco as a guest of IBM.