Why Linux is like pizza

Would you like anchovies with your open-source code?
Written by Evan Leibovitch, Contributor on
Not many people anywhere, let alone in the open-source world, have heard of the Mettle distribution of Linux. You won't find it in ZDNet's list of downloadable distributions, or even the huge list maintained by Linux Weekly News. Indeed, it has not generated a sentence's worth of public mention until now.

Why? Because it's the distribution used internally by only one organization, my company, Starnix, as the foundation of its various servers, firewalls, and special-purpose systems. Mettle, based loosely on Red Hat 6.2 but with significant modifications, serves an important function for Starnix, but the nature of its many customizations are likely of little use to folks on the outside.

That's part of the beauty of open source in general and Linux's approach specifically. When you have the source, you can tailor your computer's operating environment to do just about anything you want. This level of customization is unthinkable and unattainable in the closed-source world.

It was with Mettle in mind that I read the reaction to a recent column by my colleague Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols. In that piece, the author offered a bet that Caldera and Red Hat would be the last major Linux distributions standing once the rest inevitably died off.

I'll take that bet in a heartbeat. And I'll win it, too, for no other reason than my confidence that Debian will outlast any commercial distribution; Debian doesn't need to appease shareholders, just the community that builds it.

Steven reiterates the idea that massive consolidation -- or the dying out of "lesser" distributions -- is a necessary part of Linux's growing up. That idea was repeated in another recent commentary by Stephen Shankland. But I disagree strongly. A wide range of Linux distributions is good for Linux's growth, and the diversity itself is a part of that growth. While the Linux world hasn't seen its last consolidation, takeover, or outright abandonment, that doesn't mean that the smaller players don't have a role to play in the success of Linux.

With Red Hat and Caldera's well-funded worldwide organizations at one end of the scale and small distros such as Mettle at the other, we have a very broad spectrum out there. The best analogy I could find came out of one of the Linux Today replies to Steven's piece: Linux is like pizza.

Pizza is a known product with a widely available recipe that's subject to modifications by everyone who makes it. Everyone has access to the tools to make or customize their own, yet most folks choose to have their pizza made for them.

So who does the pizza making? Does anyone ever fret about pizza recipes "forking" because some new restaurant does it a little differently? Does the existence of well-known national brands like Pizza Hut and Domino's affect the popularity of Pizzeria Uno -- or of my personal favorite, Pendeli's in Montreal? Of course not.

Same with Linux. You have your choice of

  • International "brands" that have widespread recognition, are capable of dealing with large multi-national projects, as well as their own network of partners and franchises
  • Regional favorites that may not be known everywhere, but are staggeringly popular in their own area. They may be more sensitive to local needs or preferences, or simply the beneficiaries of a desire to support one's neighbors
  • Special-interest variations that serve discrete niches, such as distributions for the blind, or very old computers, or palm units
  • Special combinations that you or your favorite software chef has concocted
Indeed, it takes all kinds. If tomorrow one of the international pizza conglomerates were to go out of business, would anyone fret about the long-term popularity or viability of the food? Not likely.

Same with Linux. We can argue about whose recipe is best, or complain about the speed and quality of delivery, but underlying all the discussion is the quiet confidence that vendors may come and go, but the product will always be with us.

Of course, pizza doesn't need support after you get it -- unless you need something for indigestion. But never mind that -- I'm getting hungry just writing this.

Do you think the diversity of distributions good or bad for Linux's growth? Let me know in the TalkBack below.

Editorial standards