HP to expand Debian Linux support

Decision driven by increased customer demand

BANGALORE, India --In an effort to cater to vertical markets and customers who want customized applications that require changes to the Linux kernel, Hewlett-Packard Co. is planning to expand support offerings to customers who run the Debian Project's version of the operating system.

"HP Services is working on some projects right now to increase the number and quality of the support offerings that they can provide to customers who want to run Debian," Bdale Garbee, HP's Linux chief technology officer (CTO) told IDG News Service on the sidelines of a Linux conference here this week.

The Debian Project is an association of programmers who have banded together to develop a non-commercial operating system. The operating system is based on the Linux kernel and also incorporates basic software tools from another free-software project, the GNU Project, and thus is dubbed Debian GNU/Linux, or Debian for short. Garbee was the project leader for Debian until early this year.

HP supports a number of commercial versions of Linux including those from Red Hat Inc. in Raleigh, North Carolina, and SuSE Linux AG in Nuremberg, Germany. In 2001, however, HP standardized on Debian as its internal Linux research and development environment.

Up to now HP has offered support for Debian, but it is on request only and the service is limited. The decision to enhance Debian support is being driven not by any philosophical bias but because the number of customers who want to run Debian on their systems is growing dramatically, Garbee said.

A number of government and education projects in Spain and Brazil, for example, are deploying Debian desktops. "In Spain for example the local developers have decided to base their work on Debian, and if HP wants to be relevant to them as a provider of hardware and services, we have to be able to say yes to Debian," said Garbee.

In developing countries -- where there is a strong sense of Linux deployments being associated with social work or governmental, cultural, and educational opportunities, and not so much as a business opportunity -- the users and developers seem more likely to wrap their dreams around the fundamental ideas of free software, according to Garbee.

"When they cross the chasm to the new (free software) paradigm, they start thinking of how to fully participate in the community development model, and at that point they don't think so much of commercial distributions of Linux, and focus instead on pure open source and free software, and they see Debian as being a distribution that is well aligned with that," Garbee added.

HP's decision to put more resources into Debian support is also linked to its plans to introduce new products around Debian for specific vertical markets, such as telecommunications and certain types of clustered computing environments that require custom OS kernel work, he said.

"Once we decide to do custom kernel work to support customers, that immediately takes us away from commercial distributions (of Linux), because the branding and the certification that is part of the branding process for those distributions breaks if you need to run a different kernel," added Garbee.

An option for HP was to approach a commercial distributor for the kernel changes, convince the distributor that the market opportunity justified the modifications, and hope for the distributor's approval. In such a situation, the schedule for the changes would also be tied in to the release schedule of the commercial distributor.

So now, in cases where HP does a custom kernel change and assumes responsibility for supporting the resulting product, it will work with Debian. "We prefer to do this with Debian rather than with, say, Red Hat or SuSE because there is no point in giving them the money for the distribution, if we are going to be the ones to support it," Garbee added.

HP plans to leverage the support infrastructure it is building for its new products built around Debian to meet increasing general demand for the software. "Once we start delivering the products, we have to staff up and train people to be able to support those systems," said Garbee. "It is very easy to have those same people support more general users of Debian."

However, HP's general marketing focus for Linux will continue to be on systems running Linux from its commercial distribution partners, according to Garbee.

"The right way to think about this is that HP supports Debian, but HP does not really market Debian, because there is no financial advantage for us from doing that," said Garbee. "We have strong business relationships with our commercial distribution partners, and we would like to continue to go ahead with that where it makes good sense to the customer, to HP, and the commercial distributor, because it provides sharing of the workload and of the expense of meeting the customer's needs."

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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