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SGI, HP, Oracle embrace Linux

Several more big technology companies are stepping up commitments to use Linux, the free operating system that has become a cult favourite in the computer industry.

Silicon Graphics is expected to announce next week that it will make Linux a primary offering across much of its product line of workstation and server computers. Hewlett-Packard is sponsoring a Web site aimed at linking companies interested in Linux projects with programmers who are experienced in Linux and other "open source" software products. Oracle, which announced Linux support last year, plans on releasing a Linux version of its database software for use on mobile computers.

The announcements are scheduled to coincide with an US trade show that opens Tuesday.

The Linux system is overseen by Linus Torvalds, a 29 year old Fin who now works at a Silicon Valley company. It is one of a cluster of "open source" programs being used with increasing frequency in the computing world as alternatives both to the proprietary Unix systems sold by big computer companies as well as to the Windows software of Microsoft. Other open-source programs include Apache, which is used to run Internet sites, and Samba, which connects Linux machines to Windows machines.

Silicon Graphics would not comment on its Linux plans, which were described by people familiar with them. But the company has been working closely with Torvalds in recent months, and had previously announced other Linux initiatives. The company is expected to say Linux will be its single Unix-like offering for all future machines based on Intel microprocessors. Silicon Graphics had planned on providing its proprietary version of Unix, known as Irix, on its growing Intel line.

To the extent that Irix has features that are still lacking in Linux, the company is expected to work to add them to Linux. It is also expected to make available some of its Irix technology under an open-source licensing agreement, which among other things will give competitors access to the code. In addition to Linux, the company will continue to make Intel machines based on Microsoft's Windows NT. Silicon Graphics' expected embrace of Linux is one of the industry's most aggressive moves to date; analysts say it could help give the software some of the industrial-strength features demanded by advanced corporate computer users, something even Torvalds acknowledges that Linux now lacks. What's more, the move demonstrates one of the software's key attractions to computer companies.

Because Linux has a global network of programmers working on it, companies can reduce the number of in-house staff members working on proprietary versions of Unix. Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst with International Data Corp., said that's an especially valuable proposition for companies that, like Silicon Graphics, don't compete primarily on the basis of their Unix offerings, but instead on other features, like their graphics.

Separately, HP said it is helping launch sourceXchange, an Internet site that will be run by O'Reilly & Associates, a publishing company, to serve as a kind of job board for companies looking for open-source developers. Brian Behlendorf, who is well-known in the open-source community as one of the founders of Apache, will oversee the project.

Next week's Linux show is one of a growing number dedicated to the software. While the operating system is most popular with low-end systems, among the themes of the show will be the growing importance of Linux in high-end technical and scientific computing, said Stacey Quandt, an analyst with consulting group Giga Group. A widely available Linux program called Beowulf already allows users to link scores of low-cost personal computers into a single large supercomputer.

Use of Linux for such advanced tasks suggests the open-source movement may affect hardware companies as much as it does software companies, said Quandt. "A Linux system has the potential to replace a much more expensive hardware solution," she said.

Also next week, more software companies selling into the corporate market are expected to unveil Linux versions of their products. For example, BEA Systems of is expected to announce it will ship its popular Tuxedo product, used by big companies, on Linux.