Students bank on Linux

Four University of Western Ontario (UWO) students in London, Ont., have come down with Penguin fever, starting up their own Linux company dubbed Ignalum Linux.

Ignalum integrates with a Microsoft Corp. Windows network on the desktop out-of-the-box, said Michael Pietrantonio, CEO of Ignalum and a fourth-year computer engineering student.

“It can also act as a domain controller, meaning Windows machines can authenticate themselves on the network with [Ignalum] running as the server,” he added.

In 2002, third-year computer science student Daniel Ho decided he wanted to form a company around a Linux distribution he had developed. From the responses he received, Ho selected three students to assist him: Michael Pietrantonio; Yu Shao, a masters student in computer science; and Regan Pestle, a student pursuing a concurrent degree in administrative commercial studies (ACS) and computer science, Pietrantonio said.

Some of Ignalum’s functions are enabled by lightweight directory access protocol (LDAP), Pietrantonio said. This allows for file- and print-sharing within a Windows network, plus single sign-on authentication, which is the ability to put a Linux machine directly into a Microsoft Windows network and authenticate a user through Microsoft’s Active Directory, he said.

“[Ignalum’s distribution] is probably pretty similar to what you see with a current SuSE or current Sun [Microsystems Inc.] desktop Linux distribution,” said Gordon Haff, senior analyst and IT advisor at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H. “Aside from maybe some incremental efforts at integration into the Windows environment — the point of having some common log-ons — I don’t see anything that is particularly radically new and different.”

As Ignalum progresses, Pietrantonio said the company plans to keep the distribution free for as long as possible.

Additionally, Ignalum is working with another student group at UWO, which has built a graphics engine that can compile under Linux, Pietrantonio said.

“You can run high-end graphic games with 3D rendering,”he explained. “What they want to develop is a desktop environment based on Open GL.” This means users could get high-end graphics found in games, right in their desktop applications, he added.

Warren Shiau, research manager, Canadian software markets and directions at IDC Canada Ltd., praised the efforts of Ignalum’s founders saying they are on the right track.

“They’re hitting on a lot of things in the right place,” he said. “They have a solution that goes down the stack — you’ve got to have system management in place, desktop management software in place, some sort of identity management and file server software. These are smart guys who realize what [functions] are needed.”

To provide its users with better support, Ignalum is currently working on a partnership with the Open Support Guild, previously known as Project X. The two organizations aim to develop a support network which companies can join to get quick info about bugs, fixes and patches for their software, Pietrantonio said.

Also, Ignalum is trying to get some more support from UWO in terms of getting space in the engineering building to set up their operations and getting more students involved. Right now, Ignalum’s efforts are paid for out-of-pocket by the four students.

However, while Pietrantonio and his colleagues have a dream of one day making inroads into — and money from — the corporate world with Ignalum Linux, Haff said it is very unlikely.

Over the past year, the major plays in the desktop Linux market have crystallized, especially with Novell’s acquisition of SuSE, which gave SuSE access to broader markets, Haff explained. Even though desktop Linux is not yet popular, Haff said SuSE and Red Hat Inc., continue to be the distributions most commonly deployed on the desktop.

“If an IBM [Corp.], HP [Hewlett Packard Co.] or even a Dell [Corp.], at this point were to do a Linux desktop distribution, they would have a better chance of succeeding, but in terms of some startup company coming in and making a really big impact, that is unlikely,” Haff said.

However, this doesn’t mean Ignalum couldn’t become a mainstay in the free Linux community, he said. For example, Debian Linux and Gentoo Linux are popular free distributions but don’t make money from the corporate space and there is still room for more players in that niche, he added.

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