Analysts: Linux to be driven by business, not community

November’s first week was heralded by a slew of changes in the Linux community, however some of its members said they are not surprised by all the action.

The week began with vendor Red Hat Inc.’s announcement on Nov. 3 that it would be dropping its free Linux product range and asking customers to migrate to its priced Enterprise Linux. The next day Novell Inc. revealed its acquisition of SuSE AG. Then, on Nov. 6, Red Hat released a free Linux OS that it co-developed with the open source community – Fedora Core 1. Finally, also on Nov. 6, the Linux kernel received more attention when it was subjected to an attack – an issue that was quickly resolved.

One industry observer noted he was not surprised by these changes and activities, and said they have been on the horizon for the past few years.

“It’s not just the last week, it is essentially the last year,” explained Jonathan Eunice, principal analyst and IT advisor at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H. “There has been continuing consolidation of the distributions and the major [players] – SuSE and Red Hat – have become increasingly enterprise focused.”

With SuSE now part of the Novell family, it will have the ability to compete in the North American market where it has previously been unsuccessful, said Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass.

He said Red Hat essentially owns the North American Linux OS market, and SuSE needed a credible company that has relationships in Global 2000 – a list of the world’s 2,000 largest companies as compiled by Forbes magazine – to introduce it into the enterprise. Now SuSE has this advantage along with Novell’s extensive channel network, something that Red Hat is lacking.

However Novell still has to prove it is really serious about Linux, Illuminata’s Eunice said. While Novell was extremely successful with NetWare, it took a lot of unsuccessful diversions to try to push itself beyond that one brand including buying Unix, WordPerfect and Office Productivity.

“Novell is a disrespected company in many quarters. People understand that they had a tremendous hit and were incredibly successful with NetWare – there’s a huge amount of NetWare still installed – but as far as its forward-looking business plans, [it is] not particularly respected,” he explained. “What people do respect though is its channel operations, the support mechanisms and the fact that they understand how to deal with value-added resellers and indirect distribution on a global basis.”

But the question is, is SuSE a threat to Red Hat or to Microsoft?

Kusnetzky said that depends on Novell’s strategy.

“[Novell] has a fairly complete stack compared to some of the other Linux companies, but when your competition is Microsoft…let’s say (Novell) has got the infrastructure for a complete stack as opposed to having a complete stack,” he said.

He added that it has been hard for Linux companies to be profitable selling the operating system, even though they are growing and shipping more.

“Microsoft made more money selling software in the first two days in 2002 than Linux did in all of 2002,” Kuznetsky explained.

Red Hat is a good example, he offered. The company is doing its best to survive on the revenue from Linux – which isn’t a lot of money, Kusnetzky said. In 2002 the worldwide OS market garnered about US$15 billion in revenue, and the open source sector, with over 140 suppliers, made up only US$90 million of the total, according to IDC.

Now Red Hat is focusing on its enterprise product, has stopped supporting its free distribution, and has changed its licensing practices where users had to pay for licenses and maintenance per machine. Linux users are upset, Kusnetzky said, and refer to it as the “Microsoft in the Linux world.”

For example, if a university had a computing cluster with 2,000 machines, previously it would have only needed to buy one Linux model from Red Hat, and it could replicate it 2,000 times. If there was problem, it could also replicate the solution 2,000 times. Now Red Hat would want it to buy 2,000 licenses, with 2,000 maintenance packages – which is usually not financially feasible.

SuSE has a similar business model whereby it doesn’t provide any version of Linux for free. However Novell could decide to support the Red Hat platforms itself, Kusnetzky said. Although Novell wouldn’t make money doing this, its goal would be entice a user to install SuSE when they upgraded.

Kusnetzky said that under these circumstances Red Hat would have no choice but to renege on its decision to stop supporting its formerly free Red Hat Linux in order to compete, because it would risk losing customers.

In fact there are Linux users who are not only upset that Red Hat has decided to stop supporting the free operating system, but also that big companies like Novell and IBM Corp. are getting involved in the Linux market, saying the moves undermine the philosophy behind free software.

Shad Young, a Linux user who is an IT consultant and professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa, said he finds big business’ involvement in the Linux community rather disturbing and has been watching its involvement proliferate over the last three to four years.

“What they’re doing is they’re trying to tun a low-cost operating system to their advantage to compete with Microsoft on a worldwide level,” he said.

While Young agrees that Novell and Red Hat’s strategies make good business sense, he thinks that they are bad for the community. He is concerned that large companies don’t fundamentally understand what free software is, specifically regarding its accessibility, and lack of patents and copyrights.

“Earlier when I was promoting Linux as a business solution, it was not so that companies could build distributions that could compete with Microsoft, it was so small- and medium-sized businesses could deploy services, maintain and build them on their own,” he said.

Young said he believes the open source community and big businesses will not be able to co-exist and in two or three years, Linux will simply become another operating system like the Mac OS or Windows.

Illuminata’s Eunice said the mentality of Linux being community property is receding, and now Linux is in a hybrid state of not being completely free, but not being completely proprietary.

“It’s not a bad model. It’s not a true model that says software will be free, and yet it preserves an economic foundation for developers to put a lot of energy into it.”

He said the hard core, evangelical pushers of Linux have done their job well about spreading the message of the value of Linux, but now some of the evangelical fervour has died.

“Once a concept becomes pervasively accepted, there’s not much role for [evangelism] in society,” he said.