Linux vendors move to standard platform

Four Linux distributors - Caldera, SuSE, Turbolinux and Conectiva - are to back a standard software distribution, as a way of encouraging application development and battling the dominant position of Red Hat

Several Linux vendors have moved to standardise their customised operating environments on a single platform, the companies announced on Thursday.

As reported earlier by ZDNet UK, US companies Caldera International and Turbolinux, Germany's SuSE Linux and Brazil's Conectiva said that by the end of this year they will shift their product lines to focus on a uniform Linux distribution called UnitedLinux. The move addresses concerns about the large number of Linux distributions, each of which must be taken into account by software developers.

The founding companies said that they will promote UnitedLinux as an industry-wide standard, with other Linux distributors free to adopt it.

The advent of UnitedLinux reduces the number of major Linux distributions to five, the others being Red Hat Linux, Mandrake Linux, Debian and Slackware. "UnitedLinux addresses enterprise customers' need for a standard, business-focused Linux distribution that is certified to work across hardware and software platforms, accelerating the adoption of Linux in the enterprise," the companies said in a statement.

Instead of offering completely customised versions of the Linux operating system, each company will ship UnitedLinux along with value-added products and services, the companies said. Major software vendors such as Borland, Computer Associates, IBM and SAP, as well as hardware vendors such as Intel and AMD, endorsed the product, the Linux companies said.

The new distribution will comply with the Linux Standards Base, a project for standardising Linux platforms across the industry, as well as the Li18nux standard for internationalisation. Installations will be enabled for several languages, including English, German, French, Korean and Chinese.

The move is designed to boost Linux software development by making it unnecessary for each company to reinvent the wheel, the companies said.

Industry experts observed, however, that it also reduces development costs for the individual companies, in a time when high-tech funding is hard to come by and competition is heated. Linux companies in particular are struggling to find a reliable business model that takes into account the freely distributable nature of Linux.

Linux is based on an open-source licence, which allows it to be freely distributed and modified, as long as the redistributed versions carry the same open-source conditions. Its low cost and stability have made it particularly popular for Web servers.

Ransom Love, chief executive of Caldera, has been vocal in his concern about fragmentation, recently telling ZDNet UK, "Our biggest concern has always been compatibility problems."

Another supporter of Linux standards, developer Alan Cox of Red Hat, said a combined distribution could be another way of encouraging developers to port their applications to Linux. "If they can pull it off then I think it helps Linux as a whole to get down to five major distributions: Red Hat, Mandrake, Debian, Slackware, and this merger," he said. "The big question is whether they end up with a single coherent product or a bucket of collected failures."

The efforts of SuSE, Caldera and Turbolinux parallel the work of these companies -- along with Red Hat and others -- on the Linux Standards Base (LSB), a project by the Free Standards Group to standardise some basic Linux components and make the platform more accessible to developers. In January the Free Standards Group, along with HP, IBM, Dell Computer, Compaq Computer, SuSE, Red Hat, Caldera, Turbolinux and Ximian, announced version 1.1 of the LSB.

However, the implementation of the LSB will be slow, and it may not necessarily give smaller Linux vendors a leg up in competition with Red Hat. Aberdeen Group analyst Bill Claybrook said in January that he expects the LSB to benefit the Linux industry in general, but that Red Hat will get the lion's share of the benefits, as the largest Linux vendor.

Claybrook said that UnitedLinux could have an impact on the revenue streams of the Linux vendors involved, since it could reduce the individuality of each brand.

Red Hat is believed to be committed to the LSB, but Red Hat chairman Bob Young has said that standards are not the company's top priority, as they can stifle innovation. Though Red Hat's basic version of Linux will comply with LSB this year, its high-end Advanced Server version initially does not. And with that product being updated once every 12 to 18 months, it will be well into 2003 before it does comply.

Coiciding with Thursday's announcement, Red Hat on Wednesday launched a programme aimed at strengthening its own relationships with other technology companies.

In Red Hat's "Alliance" programme, "premier partners" will work with Red Hat to make their products compatible with its Linux enterprise products, including the recently announced Linux Advanced Server. The partners include BMC Software, Borland Software, Computer Associates, IBM and Veritas Software.

Love said Red Hat would be welcome to participate in the initiative, but said Red Hat's non-involvement at the initial launch was more a matter of timing than anything. "It was very hard to give birth to this project with four Linux companies as it was," Love told ZDNet UK. "Every extra company adds complexity, and it took nearly eight months to pull this off as it was."

"We would have invited Red Hat but there was not time," said Love. "We wanted to get this deal finalised before the summer - we only signed the agreement on Wednesday night."'s Stephen Shankland and Margaret Kane contributed to this report.

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