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Oracle deal: Good omen for Linux group?

The database maker lends UnitedLinux a hand in its turf battle with Red Hat: It will provide technical support to customers using open-source software from UnitedLinux members.

Oracle on Thursday lent UnitedLinux a hand in its turf battle with Linux leader Red Hat.

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The database heavyweight announced that it would provide technical support to customers who are using open-source software from UnitedLinux, a consortium of second-tier Linux companies.

Oracle said it plans to work with UnitedLinux to identify technical-support problems and streamline the process of addressing those issues. It will service customers who have a support contract for Oracle products and who maintain an operating system support contract with any of the UnitedLinux members.

The alliance also bolstered Oracle's push to bring Linux to the enterprise.

UnitedLinux is a four-company consortium made up of SuSE, the SCO Group, Turbolinux and Conectiva, which teamed up to present a single front against Red Hat's dominance in the industry.

Thursday's announcement is not necessarily a blow to Red Hat, "but it is absolutely another sign of continuing momentum from UnitedLinux," said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at RedMonk. "From the introduction of its developers' toolkit to the latest announcement for Oracle support, UnitedLinux is becoming more of an enterprise-ready platform, and as such certainly does represent a clear and present danger to Red Hat."

The companies said that corporate customers will benefit from the joint engineering efforts as Oracle and UnitedLinux collaborate to integrate required fixes and patches in future maintenance releases of UnitedLinux.

Under the partnership announced at the CeBit trade show in Germany, Oracle will provide "level 3" support for its customers--the deepest level, meaning that it takes responsibility for the entire software package and doesn't have to refer any calls to Linux partners, said Dave Dargo, vice president of Oracle's Linux Program Office.

Working with Linux has been a change of pace for Oracle, which typically has been beholden to other companies for modifications to operating systems. Linux's open-source nature means Oracle programmers can get involved and the database giant can also become more of an operating system company.

Hiring engineers to work on Linux "was a necessary evil that turned into a perk for us," Dargo said.

Under the "unbreakable Linux" agreement, as with the agreement with Red Hat, the UnitedLinux allies will accept the changes Oracle requires in its products.

Earlier this month, the consortium passed tests certifying use with Oracle's 9i Real Application Clusters database software. The step was significant because database software is a critical for most business tasks--and especially since Red Hat already has the certification.

Other software vendors such as BEA Systems, BMC Software and Veritas Software are also increasingly certifying that their products work with various versions of Linux.

Even Sun Microsystems, which was trying to push its own version of Linux, may be instead reconsidering that strategy and entering into an alliance with Red Hat and SuSE. IBM and Hewlett-Packard also have seen the benefit of striking alliances when it comes to Linux.

Licensing clash
One uncertainty for UnitedLinux in the near term may be the legal brawl brewing between IBM and SCO Group. The two companies have recently become embroiled in a tussle over Unix licensing.

It will be interesting, O'Grady said, to see "how UnitedLinux member SCO resolves its suit with IBM, because regardless of whether or not they attract other enterprise ISVs (independent software vendors) like Oracle, it's critical that IBM continues its relationship with UnitedLinux through members like SuSE."

Paula Hunter, general manager of the UnitedLinux partnership, declined to comment on specific actions taking place within the alliance as a result of the SCO suit. "We have a process in place and have been very careful to adhere to the appropriate policies for intellectual property and the GPL regulations," Hunter said, referring to the General Public License that governs Linux.

SuSE Chief Executive Richard Seibt reiterated the company's earlier position that it's "greatly disappointed" with SCO's actions and is re-evaluating its relationship, but declined to detail what that position might mean. "We don't believe it will have an impact on UnitedLinux," he added.

Oracle's Dargo said his company doesn't have enough insight into the SCO-IBM suit to comment on its effects.