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Linux's 'center of gravity'

Open Source Development Labs CEO Stuart Cohen heads a consortium that finds itself on the front lines in the battle over the future of open-source development.

When Stuart Cohen signed on as chief executive of Open Source Development Labs in April, he didn't think so much of his time would be occupied with the actions of a small Utah-based company called the SCO Group.

But after SCO's legal offensive expanded from IBM to include all Linux users, Cohen--himself subpoenaed by SCO--decided to put the Linux consortium on the front lines. Last week, the company announced a $10 million legal defense fund to protect Linux users.

That fund is just a part of what happens at the Beaverton, Ore.-based consortium, which employs about 30 people, including Linux founder and leader Linus Torvalds and the programmer in charge of the new 2.6 version of Linux, Andrew Morton.

As part of its effort to become what Cohen calls "the center of gravity of Linux," the OSDL is also drawing in government involvement and backing a Linux desktop technology push. Cohen discussed these and other issues with CNET

Q: What does the OSDL do?
A: Our mission is to become the center of gravity for the Linux industry and to be the place where the development community, the IT vendors and the users can come together in one location. OSDL was formed three years ago by IBM, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Computer Associates International, Fujitsu, Hitachi and NEC. It was put in place to basically test if Linux and Linux-based applications would scale for enterpriselike computing.

One of the interesting changes with OSDL is that it has expanded from the technology companies--the IBMs and the Intels of the world--to include customers. Unilever is probably the most prominent member. How has that changed the organization?
Our focus has been to work with customers that deploy Linux and Linux-based solutions.

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So we put a customer advisory council in place in the United States, where we have approximately 20 Fortune 500 companies that participate. They have met a couple of times last year, and they are meeting (this week) at LinuxWorld. We will have a similar group in place in Europe and a similar group in place in Asia. Our plan is to specifically use those groups as the voice of the corporate user to balance the technical workgroups and the marketing workgroups of our initiatives.

How have they changed things? Have they directed the OSDL to go in a direction that you had not been going before?
There have been areas in security; there have been areas in scalability; there have been areas, as it relates to (software) porting, and certainly things like providing peace of mind for users with the pending lawsuit.

The legal defense fund that you announced--that came out of the customer group?

We thought that it was important that we put the legal defense fund in place to provide peace of mind.
The customer council originally gave us the idea for it. They saw a lot of press coming from SCO and then their continuing threats of suing an end user. The customer council thought it was something that we ought to do in order to provide peace of mind for C-level executives at big, medium-size and small companies that were trying to determine what they should do with Linux. They should feel comfortable continuing and starting to deploy Linux solutions.

And what is the criterion by which you'll select who gets that money? Obviously, it would involve somebody who is the target of litigation from SCO, but what other factors are involved?
We are just in the midst of finalizing the criteria. That will be reviewed and approved at our upcoming board meeting, but we will have a subcommittee of our board of directors that will have a specific set of criteria that they will use for dispersing the funds.

There is a lot more interest these days in providing some formal protection for people who develop or use Linux. What led to that change of heart over the last six months?
While (customer) interest and momentum is high, and the acceleration is rapid, the threats from SCO that they are going to sue people has got people wondering. While it hasn't affected the deployment or the exhilaration of Linux, we thought that it was important that we put the legal defense fund in place to provide peace of mind, just like we did with the white papers and other information that we put out earlier this year; just like we have done with the Linux development process chart that we published.

One of the criticisms from the SCO Group about Linux is that there has been very little vetting of the code--somebody has not been around to review it to make sure that it didn't violate somebody's patents here, somebody's copyrights there. Does OSDL think that criticism has merit?
The Linux development process has been around for more than 10 years. It is obviously very open. The code is made readily available to members of the community. The subsystem maintainers play a key role in looking at that code and evaluating that code. Everybody looks at it, everybody evaluates it, everybody criticizes it, and then, when the subsystem maintainers are comfortable, they send the code to Linus or to Andrew Morton, and once again, they go through the very public process of the code (review). So there is no way that code comes in from the side that nobody sees that ends up in the kernel.

But do you believe that there is any need for changing it to put in some explicit code review for potential legal violations?
There are always things that you can do to make the process better, but it has really stood the test of time. We don't believe that there is anything (infringing) there, and if there is, we would like to have that code made available to us. We would evaluate it, and if it were offending, we would surgically remove it, and we would replace it with new code. But we have not been given that opportunity, because we have not seen what that code is that they allude to.

Do you have any government customers in your advisory community?

We will shortly be announcing some governments that will become OSDL members, but we are not at liberty to announce them today.
We will shortly be announcing some governments that will become OSDL members, but we are not at liberty to announce them today. There are a number of government agencies around the world that are interested in participating, because they have technical requirements, they have market requirements, they have deployment requirements--whether it is for Data Center Linux, for Carrier Grade Linux (CGL) or for desktops. They are very interested in getting involved in our process, not only to get their requirements heard but also to network with the other members of the organizations and the open-source community.

Why does Linux appeal to government customers?
It is different around the world.

I think that in the United States, they are very focused on the total cost of ownership and flexibility. In Europe, they seem more focused on the open-source concept of where Linux comes from. In Japan, I think that they are focused more on the import-export ratios--they would like to see more exporting of software versus importing of software. I think that in China, they are interested in using what they build, and they are building Linux-based applications today, because their PC penetration is rather low, compared to the United States. If people get PCs for the first time, they would like to see them running software that is developed in China and based on Linux.

In the desktop effort, can we expect news of that to come out at LinuxWorld?
Yes, we have said that we would make an announcement in January about our desktop initiative, and that is our plan.

Will that focus on technical requirements such as Windows interoperability?
We are in the midst of finalizing that now, but we will take a broad view of the usage models. We will be looking at the desktop in a broad definition. The desktop is not only e-mail and calendaring, but it is also client-server applications, it is point-of-sale terminals, it is branch office, it is help desk, it is the IT department and engineering department, it is grid computing.

And we can expect a similar model to what you have done with CGL for telecommunication companies, and with Data Center Linux for use of Linux and in back-end servers?
We will have a steering committee, we will have a technical work group, and we will have a marketing work group. I would anticipate that we will have a technical and a marketing workgroup specifically for Japan...and for other markets around the world.

Another area where Linux seems to be popular is the embedded market--non-PC computers such as radar detectors or digital video recorders or handheld computers or in-car computers. Are you looking at any work in the embedded Linux market?
Most of our focus is really on the server and desktop market, but we do keep in touch with (DeviceForge's) Embedded Linux Forum and the CE Linux Forum.

You now employ Linus Torvalds, founder and leader of the Linux operating system, and Andrew Morton, who is clearly one of the key lieutenants, being in charge of the new 2.6 kernel. Can we expect any more high-profile programmers to come on board at OSDL?
As part of our mission to become the center of gravity for Linux, I thought that it was very important that we do our fair share of work within the development community. We have some excellent kernel developers that work for us by adding Andrew and Linus. Obviously, it provides us leadership and advice and counsel.

We are not necessarily out recruiting people, because I believe that we are doing our fair share, but being independent, being vendor-neutral, being an open-source organization--those are things that are very attractive to the kernel developers. We are constantly getting interest from them about coming to work for us.

The OSDL name is Open Source Development Labs as opposed to the Linux Development Labs. Can we expect that you are going to be going into other areas of the open-source programming software collection--for example, Web severs or office software?
Our focus is really on Linux and Linux-based applications. That is where the market interest is; that is where our customers wants us to focus, and that is really where the exhilaration is.