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Do we need a unified Linux front?

Linux, and Red Hat in particular, provides an effective check on Microsoft's ambitions to own the operating-system market. How many distributions is optimal?

The U.S. Constitution makes a point of guarding against tyranny through a series of checks and balances. The software market, it turns out, is no different.

Or, rather, it could turn out to be that way. Windows has stood alone for more than a decade as the dominant operating system for personal computers, and it had a growing lock on the server too. But then Linux happened, and Apple's Mac OS X is increasingly spoiling the Windows party (though some recent data suggests that Microsoft's "I'm a PC" marketing may have actually paid off).

Linux provides an effective check on Microsoft's ambitions to own the operating-system market. The question then becomes: how many Linux distributions is optimal for keeping Microsoft honest?

Paul Rubens at ServerWatch makes a compelling argument that one Linux is better than many for the purpose of keeping Windows in check, and the clear candidate to take that mantle is Red Hat, not Novell's Suse Linux. He explains:

Some might say SLES (Suse Linux Enterprise Server) is the obvious candidate in that it's backed by Novell, and with other strings to its bow, Novell should be better able to withstand any price wars or other financial problems a Linux champion might encounter. But there's a problem with this argument. Over the years, Novell has comprehensively had its (rear) whipped by Microsoft. What it comes down to is this: Microsoft is a winner while Novell is a perennial loser.

But it gets worse. Novell, as we all know, is in Microsoft's back pocket when it comes to SLES. The Redmond giant subsidizes SLES by buying support coupons off Novell (it's committed to up to $340 million worth so far), which it uses to get Microsoft customers who are interested in Linux to spurn Red Hat.

Novell, in other words, is not a good counterbalance to Microsoft, because it's somewhat dependent on Microsoft. The VAR Guy rightly suggests that a strong showing by Novell's Suse Linux is critical to ensuring that Red Hat doesn't become Redmond, but this point is mitigated by Novell's affiliation with Microsoft.

Red Hat, however, has not actively taken the fight to Microsoft, and it needs to expand its solution footprint in order to effectively compete with Microsoft. Microsoft is much more than an operating-system company. Red Hat has started to build out its portfolio with JBoss, but more is needed.

Once Red Hat lives up to its brand and expands its range of offerings, we'll have a real competitor to Microsoft, rather than the Unix-and-BEA-replacement company that Red Hat largely is today. As for keeping Red Hat honest, I suspect that Canonical's Ubuntu will play that role, rather than Novell. Novell needs to shed its too-close affiliation with Microsoft in order to effectively counterbalance Microsoft and Red Hat.

Follow me on Twitter at mjasay.