Former Red Hat employees start up new Linux company

Two former Red Hat Inc. employees have started their own Linux company, dubbed SpecifixT Inc. (Specifix), marketing a Red Hat-compatible version of Linux that users can modify to fit their business-specific needs — but still retain support.

Ken Knuttila, co-founder and CEO of Specifix in San Jose, said the company’s Linux product differs from those of Red Hat and Novell Inc.’s SUSE because once a user modifies a Red Hat or SUSE distribution, its service agreement is nullified, destroying what Specifix said is one of the most valuable aspects of Linux — the freedom to modify.

“Although Linux is an open source distribution, in a way it’s kind of frozen in time. What we consider to be the big advantage of open source is that you can actually go and make changes to make it more suitable for your own use,” Knuttila said. “It makes it very difficult with the way Red Hat and SUSE deliver their packages and services for them to cope with you making changes.”

That’s why Specifix developed ConaryT (Conary), a distributed software management system which lets users build, deploy and manage a single Linux code base across unlimited number of configurations and hardware platforms.

“The machinery, programs, products and service packages that we’re putting together are all intended to give our customers the ability to modify their source to the degree they feel they need to, while only having to support and maintain the things they’ve changed,” Knuttila said. “We will retain responsibility for the rest of those systems and provide the customers with tools that simplify the process of creating and maintaining their changes.”

Knuttila and Troan joined forces in late 2003 with the express purpose of tackling some of the new issues on the Linux market and embarking on projects they couldn’t do at Red Hat.

Industry watchers say there are elements both in favour and against Specifix’s success.

“One potential issue I see is that support for the base Linux is well and good as far as it goes,” said Gordon Haff, senior analyst and IT advisor at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H. “However, one of the values of a distribution such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux is that it’s been certified by independent software vendors for their products. Even if Specifix were to offer such certifications with its base product, it’s unclear if independent software vendors would sign up to certify against altered versions.”

However, Warren Shiau, research manager, Canadian software markets and directions at IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto, said there is definitely a niche market for Specifix’s offerings.

“There is a limited market for this sort of thing but I believe that is the intention,” he said. “They’re not looking to take over Red Hat and SUSE installations.”

For example, he said Specifix would be useful for a company that is going to build out a retail-specific solution that is based on Linux.

“Maybe they need to do some development on their own, maybe they need to have some functional specificity throughout the solution that they build out, so they may want to work with someone like a Specifix,” he explained.

Knuttila said Specifix is targeting the corporate IT, embedded and original equipment manufacturer (OEM) markets.

Shiau said an OEM could employ Specifix if it was creating an industry-specific solution, which included both hardware and custom software. Additionally, he said corporate IT users might be interested in Specifix for doing custom-development for Red Hat Linux. Traditionally, tools used to manage the development process have been weak in the Linux and open source worlds in comparison with Unix and Windows. This means any new tool, in this case, Conary, has the potential of being useful.

Knuttila said Specifix Linux will be compatible with RHEL 3.0 and based on the 2.4 Linux kernel. The company also intends to have a 2.6 version available shortly after the 2.4 version goes to market in late 2004. Specifix’s Linux goes beta this week; users can download a free beta version from Specifix’s Web site.

The first consumer-ready version will be on the market by sometime in August, Knuttila said, depending upon the beta cycle.

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