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
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
Red Hat 6.2 but with significant modifications, serves an important
function for Starnix, but the nature of its many customizations are
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
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
of the scale and small distros such as Mettle at the other, we have a
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 is a known product with a widely available recipe that's subject
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
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
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
is the quiet confidence that vendors may come and go, but the product
always be with us.
Of course, pizza doesn't need support after you get it -- unless you
something for indigestion. But never mind that -- I'm getting hungry
Do you think the diversity of distributions good or bad for Linux's
growth? Let me know in the TalkBack below.