LSB -- Can It Help Network Managers Cope With Linux?

An emerging standard called Linux Standard Base (LSB) is being touted as a boon to software developers. If all goes as planned, though, network managers too could start benefiting from LSB, possibly as early as the end of this year.
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An emerging standard called Linux Standard Base (LSB) is getting lots of play lately as a boon to software developers. If all goes as planned, though, network managers could start benefiting, too, possibly as early as the end of this year.

Linux continues to draw criticism for its interoperability, scalability, and usability issues. Nonetheless, growing numbers of large organizations are working with Linux, including Amazon.com, eTrade and the University of Wisconsin.

Way back in the year 2000, Linux held a 27% market share of new licenses for software operating environments, versus 41% for Microsoft Windows NT/2000, 17% for Novell NetWare and 13.5% for "combined Unix," according to International Data Corp. (IDC).

"It's reasonable to assume that many network managers are now dealing with Linux, especially those who are already dealing with Unix," says Al Gillen, IDC's research director for system software. Even if your company isn't using Linux yet, it might be soon.

The Buzz

So what's the LSB buzz about? Linux software vendors, OEMs and ISVs are promoting LSB as a way of gaining a unified platform for the many different branded collections, or "distributions," of Linux.

At the end of January, the Free Standards Group, author of the specs, released the first major rev of the standard, LSB 1.1. Top execs for four of the leading Linux vendors -- Caldera, Red Hat, Turbolinux, and SuSE -- said they will ship products complying with LSB 1.1 by the end of 2002.

Other big LSB backers include IBM, Sun, Oracle, Dell and Compaq. Also contributing are groups such as the The Debian Project; MandrakeSoft; Linux for PowerPC; Linuxcare; VA Linux; The Open Group; Software in the Public Interest, and The USENIX Association.

"Right now, Linux is a component of an infrastructure. It's typically used on a Web server or a print/file server, for example. Companies who are looking at deploying Linux as an application server -- for ERP or CRM, for instance -- are those that will be most interested in LSB," says IDC's Gillen.

Members of the standards group freely admit that LSB is geared mainly to making more commercial software applications available on Linux servers.

"Every ISV I've talked to has known the pain and suffering of trying to port applications to multiple distributions of Linux," says John Terpstra, a Linux evangelist at Caldera.

Benefits for Networkers

Linux vendors also see pluses for network managers, though, and so do some administrators. Tony Hammond, a systems administrator at the University of Wisconsin, thinks standardization would help solve problems like those he now faces in porting Cluster In A Box from a Red Hat distribution to Linux from Scratch (a project that provides the necessary steps to build your own custom Linux system).

"The idea (behind LSB) is that if everything is in a standard place, applications will be portable from one distribution to the next," concurs Nathan Walp, a Virginia-based systems administrator and developer. Walp has worked with Windows and Solaris as well as the Red Hat, Debian, SuSE, and Slackware distributions of Linux.

"LSB will be good for administrators because everyone has their own personal taste. People will be able to use whatever distribution of Linux they want, while still being able to (easily) run applications," Walp predicts.

As others see it, LSB will make it easier for network managers to avail themselves of open source code and Linux's relatively low cost of ownership.

"With Linux becoming more standardized, network managers can choose Linux over other operating environments, without feeling like they're being locked into a single distributor," maintains Marjo Murcato, senior director of solutions at Turbolinux.

Specifically, LSB will help network managers most by specifying common locations for software libraries, observers say. LSB also specifies shared system commands and a files systems hierarchy. FHS (Filesystem Hierarchy Standard) is used for arranging libraries, commands, and files.

"Otherwise, with the variety of Linux platforms out there, network managers would have to spend a lot of time writing scripts. In Linux, the location of files can differ from distribution to distribution," says Peter Beckman, VP of engineering at Turbolinux.

Although corporate developers produce custom Linux applications, network managers end up doing most of the tweaking needed for running Linux apps on LANs and WANs, Beckman says. In some smaller implementations, though, Linux developers can still end up pulling double duty as systems administrators.

Currently, Linux applications are certified to specific Linux distributions. If administrators try to run an app on a different distribution, -- or across multiple distributions used by various departments -- they might need to write scripts for file maintenance, security features, or the configuration files used in changing user passwords, for example.


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