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Linux Criticism Revs Up

Backlash Against Success

  • May 20, 2004
  • By Ron Miller

The SCO lawsuit might have been the first significant shot across Linux's bow, and although it never really succeeded in slowing down Linux's growing popularity, it marked the beginning of many such attacks on the operating system's credibility.

Over the last several months, the level and tenor of the criticism of Linux has ratcheted up as more stories appear in the press about possible issues around intellectual property rights, security, application compatibility, the total cost of ownership and a whole host of other issues.

Just this week a new book by Kenneth Brown was announced that is highly critical of Linus Torvalds and Linux. This raises the question: is this merely a whisper campaign meant to generate fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) in the public's mind regarding Linux, or do the critics have a point?

Ultimately, the answer to any question as complex as this one lies somewhere in the middle. While Linux is clearly not the open source pariah that its harshest critics make it out to be, neither is it the operating system panacea that its fiercest advocates claim.

Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata, says that the recent rise in criticism of Linux is the price the open source operating system must pay for its success.

"Folks like Microsoft and SCO are threatened at various levels by Linux and that's what causes them to take shots at it. And frankly, the nature of Linux is changing and a lot of the free and open source community isn't happy. They like the idea Linux is popular, but not what that implies," Haff said.

What that implies, according to Haff, is that as Linux matures there are going to more demands for stability and predictability.

"The fact you have much more corporate involvement means demands like support and stability become that much more important. The priorities for commercial operating system or software that sits on top of the operating system are different from those of a hobbyist who are more interested in the latest gee whiz feature and rolling out regular updates, and those do come into conflict with the more somber, better controlled, more predictable operating system or software for data center type of environment," Haff explained.

But some wonder if such predictability and stability is possible in an open source operating system.

Dan O'Dowd, CEO at Green Hills, a real-time operating system vendor created quite a stir in the press recently when he was highly critical of the use of Linux in military and defense applications. Although he uses Linux in some applications inside his company, he strongly believes that using open source in military scenarios leaves the equipment vulnerable to spies and hackers.

"We have seen military programs that are saying they are going to use Linux. We can't understand how you can go on the Internet and download code from who knows where, millions of lines of code--not a small amount--and put it into controlling a tank. Once foreign intelligence agencies of other countries realize we are doing that, they just put a few people in the Linux project and start adding some code in it. So maybe it will work great until January 12, 2008 then it will start doing weird things, and we've burned it into bombs, and missiles and tanks and then it starts misbehaving," O'Dowd said.

Haff dismisses this fear, saying that any operating system--open source or proprietary--can be open to hacking.

"There are really two polar positions--one that is strong security by obscurity, If people can't see the source code, I can keep total control, and I can make it so much more difficult to attack it or find security exploits. Well there are tons of examples of proprietary systems having security issues, and we don't have to pick on Microsoft here, but the fact is that all the major Unix operating systems have regular patches. You don't need open source to have security problems," Haff pointed out.

Haff believes, however, that this kind of shared vulnerability could actually be an argument in favor of open source, although he's careful to point out that open source has security issues of its own.

"Neither polar extreme, carries with it any kind of iron clad guarantee of security. Open source Linux doesn't have perfect record when it comes to security either. There are security patches released on a weekly basis by the various distributions for security holes," Haff argued. "It seems in this networked world, that anything that could be exploited, will be eventually be exploited, and if that's the case, then I think there is a reasonable argument to be made to have more eyes looking at the code to find the problems."

Microsoft has also jumped on the anti-Linux bandwagon with a Web site and statements from Microsoft executives including one from the Australian Managing Director of Microsoft that Linux wasn't "really open source." Haff says we can take an anti-Linux statement from Microsoft with a grain of salt, but that's not to say that some criticism isn't deserved.

"Any statement from Microsoft about Linux is frankly self interested. If Linux gains share on the desktop, that clearly comes at the expense of Microsoft. Having said that, there clearly are [legitimate] criticisms of Linux," Haff says

Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at Red Monk, wonders about the legitimacy of some of the recent studies showing a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) for Microsoft over Linux, but he believes it's certainly legitimate to be asking questions about TCO.

"Analysts and media and customer like to take contrarian stances and take conventional wisdom that Linux is cheaper than Microsoft and are taking a hard look at that and we support that. It's always good to question conventional wisdom. What we have taken exception with is many of the studies are sponsored by Microsoft, which in our view, compromises the research. [That said,] some studies look at estimates or progressions based on certain assumptions involving retraining and so forth, and a lot of people do tend to overlook cost of maintenance and development and training," O'Grady opined.

In the final analysis, the fact that Linux is being criticized is probably a good thing.

First of all, it shows that Linux is making headway in the enterprise and beginning to have an impact on competitors and they are reacting to that. Secondly, it's healthy to take a long look at any solution and analyze its strengths and weaknesses and the economic ramifications of one choice over another.

Ultimately, consumers and decision makers need to look carefully at the data including the sources of the data and the criticism and decide if Linux is the right decision, but as more people choose Linux and it finds its place in the market, it is bound to wear a target. That's simply the price you pay for success in the marketplace.

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