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Will Oracle's 'Standardization' Offset Linux Fragmentation?

Standing Apart or Banding Together?

  • October 31, 2006
  • By Jacqueline Emigh

While Oracle's moves to provide enterprise-level support around Red Hat Linux are stirring up controversy, the vendor's decision to join the Free Standards Group (FSG), also unveiled last week, is capturing less attention. Yet is it possible that Oracle's newly minted membership in the standards group might actually help to dispel industry fragmentation?

"Oracle's membership in the FSG is clearly a positive sign," maintained Jim Zemlin, the FSG's executive director.

In an interview with LinuxPlanet, Zemlin steered rather clear of making direct predictions as to whether Oracle's support program will bring about "forking," leading to the Oracle Linux "derivative" that Red Hat currently warns about on its Web site.

But Zemlin strongly stressed the FSG's stance that, even among open source organizations, compliance with open standards is the only way to make sure of compatibility.

"The real battle isn't 'Oracle vs. Red Hat.' It's 'Linux vs. Microsoft' and 'Linux vs. Unix,'" the executive director told LinuxPlanet.

Oracle joined the FSG only a few days before issuing its announcements at Oracle OpenWorld last week, according to Zemlin.

But Oracle had worked with the standards body for the past several years, anyway, as an applications vendor, Zemlin said.

Oracle is now entering the FSG as a platinum member, meaning that it's making the highest possible level of financial contribution. In contrast, Red Hat is a not a platinum member--nor are other Linux distributors that are FSG members, such as Novell, Mandriva, Turbolinux, and Red Flag, one of many existing RHEL derivatives.

But regardless of amounts of financial contribution, FSG members can work side by side each other at the workgroup level, Zemlin said.

In contrast, many Linux "community groups"--including those that are developing RHEL derivative CentOS and Debian derivative Ubantu, for example-- are also certifying their distributions to the FSG's Linux Standard Base (LSB), even though they are not FSG members.

The FSG's LSB defines specifications around interfaces, rather than around underlying architectures.

Zemlin cited three main "wells" for Linux software code: Debian and its derivatives; RHEL and its derivatives; and Novell SuSE Linux.

A couple of weeks ago, the FSG launched the LSB Developer Network (LDN)--a developer community loosely modeled after Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN)--in an effort to help drive more Linux applications from ISVs.

The LDN provides tools for certifying application compliance with the LSB, among many other offerings.

On the whole, standardization also helps to combat "proprietary" behaviors on the part of vendors, according to Zemlin.

"Oracle is taking the right road here. Oracle is supporting open source, and Oracle wants to do so in a standardized way," Zemlin said, mentioning a press release quote from Donald Deutsch, Oracle's VP of Standards, Strategy and Architecture, as one indication of Oracle's intentions.

"Linux is a strategic platform for Oracle," Deutsch says in the Oracle press release. "Because of that, we felt it's important that we extend our commitment to standards-based computing and join the standardization authority for the Linux community: the Free Standards Group."

Meanwhile, Red Hat is apparently cautioning customers that Oracle's emerging Linux "derivative" might not turn out to be compliant with RHEL at an API (application programming interface) or ABI (application binary interface) level.

"The changes Oracle has stated they will make will result in a different code base than Red Hat Enterprise Linux," according to a Q&A posted on Red Hat's Web site.

Oracle had articulated plans to release updates and bug fixes for its customers through its Unbreakable Linux program.

Might it ever be possible for an existing FSG member, such as Red Hat, to block another company, such as Oracle, from joining the FSG standards consortium?

"Absolutely not," Zemlin answered. "There's no way anybody will be precluded. Anybody can join."

But in Zemlin's opinion, it's only in the best financial interests of Linux distributors to cooperate with each other, anyway.

"No [Linux distributor] really wants a fragmented Linux infrastructure," Zemlin told LinuxPlanet.

"It might be a little bit interesting to a distributor to compete with another distribution," he acknowledged.

"But at the end of the day, that's not nearly as interesting in a financial sense as competing [cooperatively] against Microsoft."

Zemlin also expressed "total confidence in an operational sense" about both Oracle and Red Hat.

"They are truly two of the best run companies I've ever seen," according to the FSG's executive director.

Zemlin contended, too, that users stand much to gain from Linux standardization through the FSG.

"Customers are getting sick and tired of being beholden to any particular vendor," Zemlin told LinuxPlanet.

"Without any standards in place, you could be using open source [software] and still get locked into a specific vendor."

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