Enterprise Linux 2006--A Year Of Deals
Rationalized By 'Customer Demand'
In the enterprise Linux space, 2006 was marked by greater expansion of Linux into vertical markets, new products, and most notably, a string of surprise business deals among vendors. The year also bore witness to an increasing trend, of sorts, among Novell, Oracle, and other software companies to justify their actions on the basis of "customer demand."
To be sure, customers keep wanting smoother and less costly Linux implementations, as a general rule. They'd also like to avoid the threat of lawsuits. But the demands of individual customers can vary a lot, based on the size of the enterprise, its existing operating environments, the organizational culture, and practically innumerable other factors.
And meanwhile, it still remains to be seen just how well the needs of any customer will (or won't) be served by Novell's industry-shocking alliance with Microsoft. The same can be said about Oracle's move to provide its own support package for customers, instead of relying on its long-term partner Red Hat.
But anyhow, along the way, vendors also formed new industry groups this year, such as the Novell/Microsoft/Sun-spearheaded Vendor Interop Alliance, an outgrowth of the Novell/Microsoft pact.
Meanwhile, more vendors also joined existing industry standards bodies, including the Free Standards Group (FSG), an organization that now includes Oracle plus Red Hat, Novell, and dozens of other Linux distributors.
In the category of new products for enterprise Linux, Novell released SLES (Suse Linux Enterprise Server) 10 during 2006. Red Hat, for its part, moved into beta 2 with RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) 5.
The year saw news, too, around vendor-specific application stacks, which are ostensibly aimed at easing implementation for users. With an application stack in mind, Red Hat acquired middleware vendor JBoss last spring. Some say, though, that early on Red Hat faced issues around integrating its own QA, test, and support services with those of its acquired property.
Here again, vendors switched partners. In mid-2005, less than a year before Red Hat's buyout of JBoss, JBoss had banded together with Oracle, HP, and Red Hat rival Novell to launch a "multi-applications solution stack" on Linux.
Additional companies entered the Linux vendor pool this year, as well, with the rollouts of new multifunctional network management appliances, antivirus products, business intelligence (BI) software, and other third-party wares at Networld + Interop, LinuxWorld, and other computing conferences.
As usual, customers in Linux early adopter markets, such as government and financial services, turned out to be especially vocal this year in talking up their requirements. In an initiative known as the Open Technology Development (OTD) project, the US Defense Department asked Linux vendors Red Hat and Novell--along with OEMs, chipmakers, systems integrators, and "non-traditional" open source companies--for feedback that would help shorten the learning curve toward open source deployment within the agency.
At venues such as the annual SIA (Securities Industry Association) conference, financial services customers cited obstacles for Linux implementations ranging from service fees to interoperability problems, both across distributions and between Linux and other OSes. Some users said they're looking to virtualization as one solution for interoperability woes.
Also during the year, though, the spread of Linux and open source software into other enterprise and SMB vertical markets grew much more evident. In the health care field, a user in South Africa, home of the Ubuntu distribution of Linux, proposed the deployment of Ubuntu across a nationwide hospital network.
Within education, some predicted that open source will soon become a viable option for K-12 public school systems throughout the US.
Among lawyers, the use of Linux is still limited mostly to security appliances. But huge retailers such as Circuit City, Pep Boys, and Urban Outfitters have already started to migrate to 100 percent Linux deployments on their store-level IT systems.
Yet of all the events that occurred during a hectic and turbulent year, the Novell/Microsoft announcement in November and Oracle's announcement in October could turn out to be particularly telling in terms of future purchasing decisions. Both deals raise important questions for customers, as well as for developers, resellers, and other partners. And each has been a subject of much controversy and debate.
At various times and in various places, Novell and Microsoft officials have touted their multifaceted and complicated pact as being driven by customer pressures for better interoperability between Linux and Windows.
But there are also contentions by analysts and others that the interoperability between these OS doesn't matter all that much to most customers, and that the interoperability issue is actually a cover-up for the real meat of the announcement, which involves agreements around patent rights. Under a related theory, Microsoft will be able to use these agreements to transform Novell's SuSE Linux into a lawsuit-free version of Linux, while also reminding people that all other Linux distributions are potential targets for litigation.
This tends to assume, however, that Linux actually includes any Microsoft code, a possibility that Novell has flatly denied, despite Microsoft's repeated insinuations in that direction.
Some members of the Linux community have also argued that the Novell/Microsoft deal violates the spirit of the GPL 2.0 license. In fact, Jeremy Allison of the Samba Project recently quit his job at Novell to move over to Google around just this very issue.
But then again, there's also a contingent of people out there who believe that Novell's alliance with Microsoft will be good for Linux, on the whole. Beyond arguing that better integration with Windows will propel Linux further into the mainstream, some of these folks contend that the deal brings favorable attention to Linux through a seeming endorsement of the platform by Microsoft.
Stepping along to the Oracle announcement, Oracle promised its customers a 50 percent reduction in support fees over Red Hat's pricing from its new support offering. Clearly, the company was pointing here to customer demand for lower costs. Yet members of the Linux community have since taken Oracle's "Unbreakable Linux" to task over issues ranging from bug fixes to Oracle's failure to recognize the contributions of volunteers.
Other signs of unrest quickly became evident, too, with resellers reporting they've had trouble figuring out how to order Oracle's offering.
But might some customers defect from Red Hat, anyway, given the hearty discount they'll get from Oracle? According to some observers, any impact to Red Hat's business will take at least six months to play out. Meanwhile, moreover, customers might be able to use Oracle's lower pricing to negotiate better deals with Red Hat.
Moving into 2007, customers can probably draw more real solace from a few other things that occurred in 2006. For instance, throughout the year, SCO's legal battle against Novell and IBM over its supposed intellectual property (IP) rights to Linux kept subsiding. Few users are likely to forget that SCO had rattled its legal saber at customer Daimler-Chrysler over this IP matter, too.
Further, in another reassuring phenomenon, toward the end of this year, Sun decided to release the Java platform to open source under the GNU public license, while also maintaining a commercially licensed version of Java.
Unveiled in October, the availability of Java in open source should benefit users by spurring considerable new development of applications that can run across Linux and other operating environments. But also under the deal, users worried about patent liability can continue to get full indemnification from Sun by licensing the commercial edition. Both ways, this seems to be a win for customers.
And with the clock ticking down quickly to the dawn of the new year, we now get word that the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), a New York-based open source advocacy group, has filed a brief in a Microsoft case asking the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate all software patents.
If a measure like that ever made it into law, proprietary software vendors would no longer be able to threaten either vendors or customers with the prospect of patent infringement suits. And for that, many members of the Linux community would undoubtedly breathe a huge sigh of collective relief.