Really free Linux takes hold

Use of community Linux distributions like Ubuntu, CentOS and Debian are on the rise in the enterprise

It's hardly news these days when RHEL or Suse Linux boots Windows or Unix off a server. And we know that commercial software vendors are paying plenty of attention to commercial open source.

But have you ever heard of a community version of the open source operating system displacing one of the popular commercial distributions? That's exactly what happened in Germany's third-largest public TV and radio station, according to a new report on community Linux by analyst Jay Lyman of the 451 Group.

[ Europe, in general, and France, in particular, lead in community-driven open source. Find out what open source lessons the French can teach us. ]

"Community distributions such as CentOS, Debian, and Gentoo are gaining enterprise respect for quality code, stability, response and, of course, for being 'free as in beer' and 'free as in freedom' (a common open source mantra referring to cost and freedom from vendor or standard lock-in). These community distributions are becoming a more significant market factor with growing enterprise acceptance and use of them," he writes.

Not surprisingly, the opportunity to cut costs is an important driver of community Linux, but Lyman makes an interesting point, noting that a rise in internal expertise -- and a willingness to use it -- is a key enabler of the nascent trend.

Who you gonna call?

As Lyman recounts it, Munich-based Bayerischer Rundfunk recently switched to CentOS after running into some auto-installer difficulties with Suse. Bayerischer considered Debian, RHEL (or one of the RHEL rebuilds), and SLES, which is dominant in Germany. The choice was RHEL, but given the organization’s previous experience with the open source OS, it did not see a need for a commercial support subscription. It ended up going with CentOS, which is technically identical to RHEL.

Support, of course, is one of the biggest talking points of Red Hat and Novell, but Bayerischer opted to handle support in-house, although it occasionally has to call on an outside consultant for help.

Hardware vendors, says Lyman, may have the most to gain from community Linux by providing their own support. He cites the example of Blocket.se, a Swedish online classifieds company, which runs CentOS on all 90 of its servers.

The company insisted on having some version of commercial support to rely on even though CentOS doesn't offer it. So Blocket looks to Hewlett-Packard, its hardware vendor, for that support. HP is really providing device driver and utility support it uses for customers running RHEL, but because the two distributions are binary-compatible, that support approach works just fine for CentOS. Blocket relies on its own engineers, systems administration, and software development to get its applications running on Linux.

The end of the beginning for commercial open source?

Sweden? Germany? Sure, these examples are rather far afield, and anecdotal as well. Indeed, much of the enterprise success of community Linux is outside of North America, particularly in government and academia. No one is writing obits for Red Hat or Novell.

"Despite increased competition and market fragmentation, we expect Red Hat and Novell to continue to lead the enterprise Linux market," says Lyman. "But it is unclear whether they truly appreciate the impact of community Linux distributions on their overall growth opportunities.

"Based on their sometimes half-hearted commitment to their own respective community editions -- Fedora and OpenSuSE -- and the somewhat disappointing developer mind share that both command, it seems Red Hat and Novell may not fully recognize the trend that we see growing over time," he writes.

Lyman also says that some Linux vendors are finding traction in markets other than enterprise servers (on the desktop for Ubuntu and in netbooks for Xandros, for example), "and the more these operating systems are used in workstation, desktop, and notebook deployments, the more likely they are to make their way to the server -- particularly Ubuntu."

That may be a ways off. Later in the report, Lyman notes that Ubuntu has yet to find a hardware partner that will preinstall it on the server, a key step toward enterprise acceptance. Dell does, though, offer it on notebooks and desktops, and was planning to certify Ubuntu for servers sometime this year.

Making too much of this nascent trend would be a mistake. But to borrow (and mangle) a phrase of Churchill's, we're not seeing the beginning of the end for commercial Linux, but perhaps the end of the beginning.

I welcome your comments, tips and suggestions. Reach me at bill_snyder@infoworld.com.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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