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DistributionWatch Review: Progeny Linux beta 2

Another move into services

January 24, 2001

For Linux business watchers, the year 2000 will be remembered for the gradual shift from the belief that positioning Linux as a simple shrink-wrapped product set to move off retailer shelves on the strength of a few months of installation support will keep any business afloat for long. While there will be businesses able to build around that as one of a series of products, it's also apparent that the new focus is on providing services and know-how beyond simply getting a Linux desktop machine up and running or maintaining a modest server.

The services model is growing in prominence on several fronts. For example, Eazel has made it abundantly clear that the Nautilus file manager and graphical shell will serve as an easy-to-use conduit allowing them access to the Linux desktop in the form of system and software maintenance and assorted other network services. The latest preview release of the shell, for instance, provides transparent access to Internet-based mass storage.

Similarly, Ximian (nee Helix Code) is moving toward establishing a similar conduit via Red Carpet, its next-generation installation tool, which allows the company to not only ease the introduction of its polished GNOME desktop, but introduces the opportunity for partners to provide software directly to potential customers.

On the enterprise side is Red Hat. Arguments about the viability of the company have centered around the notion that support would be key to its profits, but the unveiling of the Red Hat Network shifts the added value of the distribution away from installation support and toward services. Subscription to the Red Hat Network will ease software and security updates and eventually provide Internet efficiency analysis, assistance in deployments across entire businesses, and security analysis.

With all these examples, the software itself -- be it a complete distribution, a graphical user environment, or a single desktop component -- is more valuable as a stable reference platform or conduit to the end user than a retail product.

Newest to this growing trend is Debian GNU/Linux project founder Ian Murdock's Progeny Linux Systems, which is building a new model for Linux in businesses in the form of Linux NOW (Network of Workstations). The company has just released the second beta of its enhanced Linux distribution. Based on Debian GNU/Linux, the distro isn't an end unto itself: it's a baseline against which services and products requiring more expertise to manage will be leveraged, and Murdock likens it to the work Ximian has done with its GNOME distribution: less of a divergence from the original project than a set of polishing enhancements.

Murdock, who says Progeny's Debian release is not the primary focus of his company notes that he considers the primary value of operating systems to be provision of services:

"There's more future in services," he asserts. "Operating systems aren't where the interesting territory is." According to Murdock, the biggest challenge is in "turning good hardware into a vehicle that allows people to do their work."

At the core of Linux NOW is Pelican, a file system that Murdock hopes will provide the high performance and availability necessary to tie many workstations into a seemingly monolithic whole. Pelican is an attempt to bring together concepts from several other file and operating systems including Sprite, Coda, and Intermezzo.

Through the use of dynamic caching (based on network congestion, server load, or planned disconnection from the network), replication of data, a specialized linking scheme, and even process migration (allowing processes to move from machine to machine as resources are consumed or freed), Progeny hopes to provide the owners of well-established collections of workstations with a network that's as easy to manage as a single machine for system administrators with none of the clumsiness end users often encounter when dealing with shared resources such as printers or disks.

As a foundation for Linux NOW, Progeny takes the well-established Debian GNU/Linux distribution and introduces what Murdock describes as a "good middle ground" between the stable and unstable branches of the project, providing a "commercial grade release cycle." Murdock believes Progeny's work with Debian will allow it to enjoy more mainstream acceptance among users who have traditionally avoided Debian because of the long wait between stable releases and an installation process that isn't as simple as most other major distributions.

Progeny Debian is developed around the testing version of Debian (Woody), but smooths off some of the rough edges that result from working with a bleeding edge development release. Upgrading to Progeny from Debian 2.2, for instance, will net users such improvements as USB support via the 2.2.18 kernel and XFree86 4.0.2. Users installing the distribution for the first time will encounter a GUI installer, an approach to package management that's more "coarse grained" than the existing Debian approach (which requires users to make more specific decisions about the software to be loaded onto their system), and improved hardware detection. Future releases of the enhanced distribution will include work being done on support for hot-plugging USB devices.

Progeny Debian will fit into the Linux NOW strategy by providing tools to ease deployment across numerous workstations, which will be key to ensuring that a uniform set of targets are present upon which the more general networking environment can operate. In a move similar to Red Hat's own introduction of kickstart disks to automate installation, Progeny Debian will feature kickstart installations over networks.

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