Two Linux standards groups combine into one

Two Linux standards groups have joined to form the Free Standards Group, which will develop a single set of standards for the open-source operating system.

Most major participants in the Linux market are joining the group, including operating system vendors Red Hat Software Inc., Caldera Systems Inc., SuSE Linux AG, Corel Corp. and TurboLinux Inc. Software vendors such as SAP AG and IBM Corp. have also signed on.

The new organization combines two informal groups, the Linux Standard Base project and the Linux Internationalization Initiative, into a non-profit corporation, allowing them to attract financing. Dan Quinlan, who headed the Linux Standard Base project, will chair the new organization.

Quinlan said the group will initially focus on delivering Version 1.0 of the Linux Standard Base, a specification that software developers will be able to use as an application development guide. Applications that comply with the specification will run on any Linux version which also supports the standard, without having to be recompiled, he said.

The specification will initially target binary compatibility of Linux applications running on Intel servers, but there will also be versions for other hardware platforms, Quinlan said. But he acknowledged: “If we don’t do a good job, we’ll be ignored.”

A draft of the specification is due to be released in about a month for public review, and a final version should be finalized before the end of the year, Quinlan said.

The Free Standards Group also hopes to deliver a test suite for verifying compliance with the specification late this year, he added. The test suite will be based in part on similar suites designed for Unix systems by the Open Group.

“This is really important to the future of Linux,” said Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.

Kusnetzky said the broad industry support for the new group could virtually assure that application vendors will adopt the specification. “If this means that (the group’s supporters) will comply with the standards promulgated by the group, the majority of Linux software will automatically follow the standards,” Kusnetzky said.

Stacey Quandt, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc., said that between 65 per cent and 70 per cent of Linux applications today will run across different distributions, or versions, of the operating system.

Quinlan said the first version of the planned standard should increase that number to 90 per cent or 95 per cent. The remaining applications would be those that require operating system features not included in the specification, he said. Some industry observers have long predicted a splintering of Linux into incompatible versions, but most analysts agree that there have been few signs of that so far. There have, however, been some serious compatibility problems – the most notable when Linux was switched to a different set of C libraries a few years ago. “We are making sure this sort of thing never happens again,” Quinlan said.

So far, Linux distributions have differentiated themselves mainly by offering features such as easier installation procedures or more drivers, not by adding incompatibilities, Kusnetzky said.

But vendors could face a major challenge later this year when Version 2.4 of the Linux kernel ships, Kusnetzky said. “What would happen if a feature that TurboLinux requires doesn’t make it into the (2.4) kernel? That will be a defining moment,” he said.

Quinlan said, though, that the Linux Standard Base specification will isolate applications from the kernel, allowing them to run with both the current 2.2 kernel and Linux 2.4 once that’s available.