Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The Dangers of a Fractured Linux

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One of the major advantages Linux has to offer is cross-platform

functionality. Far from being a PC operating system that has been

extended for other uses, it runs on cell phones, mainframes and

everything in between.

This offers IT departments the possibility of using Linux to consolidate

resources into a single skill set, or at least a single OS.

The danger, however, is that since developers are free to conduct

extensive customization, it may fork into a number of incompatible


”The differences between the versions of Linux can increase the level of

effort on the part of the system administrators as software installations

and verification can vary from system to system,” says Rob Pennington,

CTO and head of the Innovative Systems Laboratory at the National Center

for Supercomputing Applications. ”The different OS types and versions

make it very time consuming to verify that all the pieces (libraries,

compilers, file systems, etc.) work together as expected.”

Pennington has five Linux clusters under his control, including a 16

Teraflop Tungstun (W) cluster, which runs Red Hat Linux on 2560 Intel

Xeon processors. Several of the clusters are part of the TeraGrid, a

40-gigabit-per-second network, linking computers at nine universities and

national laboratories.

”A researcher should be able to use any of the systems without having to

know the paths to all of the necessary tools, the methods to submit jobs

for execution or the paths for the storage systems on the systems,” he

adds. ”This would appear to be simple but it becomes very complex when

this same type of goal is applied to multiple sites, such as those within

the TeraGrid.”

But the problem of Linux compatibility doesn’t just affect those

developing high-end research applications. Software vendors also are

significantly impacted.

There are more than 380 different Linux distributions, after all, and

developers need to make sure their products function well on at least all

the major ones in order to make their efforts profitable.

”In the beginning, end users, application developers and system

administrators were delighted to have the flexibility to make very

personal corporate decisions,” says William Hurley, senior analyst for

Enterprise Strategy Group in Portland, Or. ”Though there is a lot of

freedom in that, the ultimate long-term goal is to standardize on a class

of technologies, not just within the organization, but on explicit or de

facto industry standards so it is easier to apply complimentary


Kernel Control

The danger with Linux is not at the kernel. Although there are many

independent developers contributing their labor, what gets released

publicly is firmly under the control of Linus Torvalds.

”At the kernel itself, the community is very disciplined, so you don’t

see the kernel forking,” says Bill Weinberg, an open source architecture

specialist who works for the Open Source Development Laboratory (OSDL) in

Beaverton, Or. ”But there is the potential for divergence among some of

the Linux distributions, which makes it challenging for vendors to ship

shrink-wrapped software without having a lot of installation and

maintenance challenges across distributions.”

To make the job easier, several groups are creating standards and tools

to ensure software interoperability. They include:

  • Consumer Electronics Linux Forum (www.celinuxforum.org) — It was

    formed in 2003 by eight major consumer electronics companies (Hitachi,

    Matsushita, NEC, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, and Toshiba) who were

    later joined by more than 50 others, including IBM and LG Electronics.

    Its initial specifications, released last year, covered topics such as

    reducing power consumption, graphics functions and security;

  • Open Source Development Laboratory (www.osdl.org) — This group is

    headquartered in Beaverton, Or. and now employs Linus Torvalds and Andrew

    Morton, who oversee the development and maintenance of the Linux kernel.

    Among other activities, the OSDL is creating standard Linux versions and

    test suites for certain types of installations: Carrier Grade Linux, Data

    Center Linux and five different desktop profiles for different types of


  • The Free Standards Group sponsors the Linux Standard Base

    (www.linuxbase.org) project. The LSB Specification defines the binary

    environment in which an application executes. This allows both Linux

    distributors and application vendors to develop to a common standard,

    ensuring interoperability. Companies also can build their custom

    applications to the standard and know that they will run on any compliant

    version of Linux, as well as on Unix servers.

    ”The LSB offers data center managers a way to protect their data and

    application investment for the long term,” says Free Standards Group

    executive director Jim Zemlin. ”If you don’t want a vendor gun held to

    your head, invest in open standards based products.”

    Unite or Die

    It remains to be seen whether these standardization actions will work,

    but early indications are positive.

    While commercial software vendors try to create features to differentiate

    their products, there are two factors limiting this in the open source

    community. One is that users feel a personal stake in the software and

    apply group pressure to keep everything open and interoperable. The other

    is the nature of the open source licensing which limits exclusive,

    proprietary code.

    As long as these factors hold the Linux community in line, we can expect

    to see continued expansion of its functionality and installed base. If

    that doesn’t work, the boys in Redmond are standing by ready to pick up

    the pieces.

    ”If Linux does begin to show a fractured face like Unix did, it will

    create an unintended opportunity for Microsoft,” says Hurley.

    ”Microsoft has been aggressive in highlighting various studies showing a

    positive TCO for Windows compared to Linux, and this would be another

    front Microsoft will exploit to ensure placement of Windows.”

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