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Red Hat alums try new Linux angle

Entrepreneurs get Specifix with software to modify and manage the kind of Linux software offered by their old employer.

A group of former Red Hat employees have formed a start-up called Specifix that aims to lure customers who have customized software needs that the more established Linux company couldn't accommodate.

Specifix, which is based in San Jose, Calif., and has development sites in Raleigh, N.C., plans to offer versions of Linux that are as compatible as possible with Red Hat Enterprise Linux, the company said. But through the use of Conary, software the company plans to start showing on Wednesday, detailed records of any departures can be logged to make it easier to depart from the mainstream without losing support.

"We're trying to build a model for Linux that lets people do customization and tailoring of the operating system," said Specifix co-founder Erik Troan, who joined Red Hat in 1995 when it had four or five employees, and had risen to vice president of engineering and, later, director of marketing.

Specifix's chief executive and other founder is Kim Knuttila, who worked at Cygnus, a company that Red Hat acquired in 1999. Troan left Red Hat in 2003, and Knuttila left in 2002.

The pair, which benefited from Red Hat's strong initial public offering, funded the company themselves, Troan said. They are in talks with early customers and expect revenue to begin arriving by the end of the year.

Also among the company's 10 employees is Matthew Wilson, who will discuss Conary at the Ottawa Linux Symposium that runs July 21 through 24. Michael Johnson, who started using Linux with version 0.02 and left Red Hat early in 2004, has also joined Specifix.

No hard feelings, Red Hat Chief Executive Matthew Szulik said. "I think that's great. There are more people creating open-source start-ups. Those are good guys, and I wish them nothing but the best."

Linux is famed for being flexible and reconfigurable because its source code is free, but Linux companies such as Red Hat and Novell only support their products as long as a customer doesn't change anything. With Conary's capability of carefully tracking software changes, customers will be able to make customizations, supporting only the parts they've changed, Troan said.

Specifix will release its own versions of Linux for server use and for embedded devices such as network equipment. The company hopes to make money by providing customized versions of Linux for computing devices and for sophisticated customers, Troan said.

The initial software is similar to a hybrid of Red Hat Enterprise Linux and its testing-oriented Fedora Core versions, Troan said. "As time goes on, we're looking at ways of providing high levels of compatibility for Red Hat Enterprise Linux," he said.

The client version of Conary will be open-source software released under IBM's Common Public License. The server version, which tracks changes, also will be open-source software, but Specifix hasn't made final license decisions yet, Troan said.