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Noncommercial form of Linux draws VC interest

A Linux venture capital firm is funding a start-up that hopes to make some money off Debian, the least commercial of the various versions of Linux.

A Linux venture capital firm has funded a start-up that hopes to make some money off Debian, the least commercial of the various versions of Linux.

Linux Capital Group gave multiple millions of dollars to Progeny Linux, said Bruce Perens, Progeny chairman, a former leader of the Debian project and current head of the capital group.

Progeny, like Red Hat and other Linux companies, hopes to make money by selling services and support to companies that want a hand using Linux, Perens said. Progeny looks to be different from others by offering support for a new software package called Linux NOW, which stands for "network of workstations."

NOW bucks the trend toward powerful centralized servers advocated by Sun Microsystems and, at least in this instance, philosophical ally Microsoft, which in the past benefited much more from the profusion of small computers. But the rise of the Internet, with its use of Web browsers to access centralized services, has meant billions in revenue for Sun.

Progeny, though, believes all those workstations can be put to use. And having a network of computers hooked together into a collective actually simplifies management, Perens said. "We're essentially taking a big network of workstations and making it look like a mainframe," he said.

NOW will be worthwhile on a network of a dozen computers, but it gets better with more, he said. "If you have a larger network, with 1,000 workstations, we will come in and deploy the system for you. That's one of the ways we make money," Perens said.

The NOW software bears some resemblance to TurboLinux's enFuzion software, which lets multitudes of computers collectively attack computing problems with spare CPU cycles. EnFuzion works on numerous different operating systems.

The first version of NOW will be released as open source early in 2001, the company said. It will be open source, meaning that anyone can download the programming instructions, modify them, and redistribute them.

Programmer John Hartman, Perens and his associates at Linux Capital Group had the idea for NOW, Perens said, and hired chief executive officer Ian Murdock to run the company. Murdock founded the Debian project, named after his wife, Debra, and was Debian project leader from 1993 to 1996.

Perens, chairman of Progeny, led Debian from 1996 to 1998.

Unlike Red Hat, TurboLinux, Caldera Systems, SuSE, Mandrake and other Linux versions, Debian is backed by volunteers instead of a company with paid programmers. Debian also is the package on which Corel's version of Linux is based. The Debian project makes careful distinction between the heart of the operating system--the Linux kernel--and higher-level components that often are referred to under the Linux name.

Progeny will work to commercialize the Debian distribution so it's easier to use, Perens said.

"There are some shortcomings in commercializing the version of Debian that we've identified. The major one is installation," Perens said. "Debian is pretty much a bag of 4,000 packages. We want to identify some and standardize some."

Though Red Hat and other existing Linux distributions already have been working on installation for years, Debian won't be competing against those packages, Perens insists. "We're not competing against Mandrake and Red Hat, we're competing with Microsoft," he said.

Linux Venture Group, a six-person outfit about six months old, funds open-source and Linux work, Perens said. Its investors include investment banks, other venture capitalists, angel investors, some owners of major sports teams and Perens.

With its new funding, five-person Progeny will be hiring about 10 new employees. "We're definitely looking for Debian hackers at the moment," Perens said.

At the heart of the NOW software is a file system that distributes information so it's stored on a multitude of computers. If one computer fails, the information won't be lost. And if a person at a particular workstation uses a file frequently, it will move over to that person's own hard disk for quick access, Perens said.

People plugged into the NOW collective also can share printers, modems and other computing resources, Perens said.

Software running on a NOW system won't have to be reworked as long as it's designed to run on a server with many clients tapping into it, Perens said.