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Editor's Note: It's Raining Hardware in Portland

A New Age for Open Source?

  • August 31, 2000
  • By Michael Hall

The intersection of Linux and high end computing got a lift yesterday with an announcement that offers a pleasant splash of substance to end a month that had its share of convention-inspired hoopla and an inordinate amount of fascination with GUIs.

Dell, SGI, IBM, Hewlett Packard, and NEC announced they'll be banding together to launch the Open Source Development Lab. The OSDL is a joint effort that will be providing Linux developers with high-end hardware in order to strengthen the spread of Linux into enterprise computing.

In partnership with SuSE, Red Hat, Caldera, TurboLinux, LinuxCare, and embedded Linux players LynuxWorks, who will be providing staffing and support for the Portland lab and several satellites, the project's backers are putting up millions to back their claims that they see a place for Linux in the realm of "serious" computing.

Linux, grassroots phenomenon that it is, has long suffered from the snubs of high-end aficionados, who have rightly pointed out that enterprise computing is a tough nut to crack for anybody, let alone an OS that has thrived primarily in areas of computing where the hardware involved is cheap and ubiquitous.

While most of us have known and argued that, given access to big iron, the Linux developer community would find a way to continue the march to world domination, the general unavailability of the titanic engines that drive enterprise computing has made the proposition of Linux vaulting into the most rarefied air of the high end unlikely.

The glass in that ceiling cracked a little with IBM's support of Linux on its S/390 mainframes. For all the credibility that lent, though, it also revealed a fault line in a development landscape that's shifted dramatically since Linux stopped being a ghettoized "geek OS" and started drawing the attention of the companies that make corporate IT go 'round. Though IBM's contribution was welcome, it had been handled in-house behind closed doors and it represented the duplication of work by at least one community developer. A crucial sense of partnership was missing from the equation.

The OSDL represents some of the most substantial evidence that the big players (IBM, Intel, NEC, SGI, Hewlett Packard, and Dell) conducting their own flirtations and courtships with the Linux community are beginning to understand and act on the idea that openness means more than sicking the in-house guys on a problem and sharing what they come up with once it's done.

More improbably, when you consider the fractious and uncooperative history of these players throughout much of their past, including the hand some of them had in the fragmented history of UNIX, they're not just repeating the words, they're putting some money behind their assertions that they grok us.

The OSDL will provide developers with the hardware and environment they need to work on machines you don't find in commodified excess on the shelves of the local mom-n-pop computer store. The backers will be spending some respectable amounts of money, millions, to ensure that Linux hackers get a crack at the best they have to develop the sort of code that makes machines boasting dozens of processors run.

They'll also be fronting hardware for the upcoming 64-bit processors, which ought to be making Microsoft, already running behind in this area, even more nervous; and the presence of LynuxWorks hints that the "small-end" of embedded computing is going to see some benefit, too.

Paul Ferris, the director of technology for the internet.com Linux/Open Source Channel, has understood the value of truly open development and standards for a while, and remembers the failed promises of the past. Writing on Enterprise LinuxToday, he offers a clear-eyed look at this latest evidence that the dawning perception of open standards as something more than a cudgel for strategic manipulation is finally taking hold. His article, "The Open Days Are Just Beginning," is must-reading for a look past the dollar figures and mechanics of the project.

It's always good to take industry alliances with a grain of salt. The dynamic nature of computing, the changing seas of the market, and the obstreperous inclinations of companies used to having things their way sometimes make today's garden party tomorrow's bare-knuckle brawl. We're willing to bet, though, that this opening of corporate cultures to the Linux Way keeps a few of those previously closed doors happily open.

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