One of the great promises of software is its infinite malleability: software can be whatever you want, so long as you have the skills necessary (and legal rights) to modify it.
Despite this promise, software has long sought to replicate physical goods: mass-produced with customization, if any, coming post-sale by a system integrator or other consultant. This has helped churn out billion-dollar software companies such as Oracle, SAP, and Microsoft, but it has failed to satisfy customer demand for a tailored fit.
I'm therefore hugely impressed by Novell's Suse Studio, an innovative way to enable both standardization and customization of a Linux distribution.
Nat Friedman, Novell's chief technology and strategy officer for open source, has been working on Suse Studio for some time, but it was at VMworld in September that Novell first publicly demonstrated the product.
Since then, Novell has not said much publicly about the alpha-stage product. That's too bad, as this may well be one of the industry's most exciting and transformational software releases in years.
Why? Novell explains:
Suse Studio is a new, innovative Web-based service to enable (independent software vendors), developers, and the community to quickly and easily "mass customize" Linux. Suse Studio is the first tool to enable users to create fully supported, customized variants of Suse Linux Enterprise and OpenSuse, add additional software, and test the resulting image--all in one simple and easy-to-use interface.
"Mass customization." The idea is sheer brilliance, and the execution of it may be just as good. Novell's senior manager for Suse Studio, Matthew Richards, hit many of the high points of Suse Studio in a Network World article released on Thursday:
We didn't achieve mass customization of cars until Ford thought up the assembly line. We need the equivalent of the assembly line in the (operating system) world: tools that provide rapid, fully supported mass-market efficiency, reliability, and consistency, while allowing for individuality.
Even so, Richards largely glossed over the most important (and seemingly impossible) aspect of Suse Studio's myriad customizations: they will be fully supported.
In 2000, my company, embedded Linux vendor Lineo, figured out how to enable our customers to "mass customize" Linux with our software development kit. What we didn't figure out, and what no one after us has, until now, was how to fully support the output of that SDK.
Novell has now cracked the supportability code. I asked Justin Steinman, Novell's vice president of solution and product marketing, how Novell will support the wide variety of tailored Suse Linux distributions its customers will create, and I got the following response:
We will build a "supportability algorithm" into Suse Studio. If your "customized (Suse Linux Enterprise)" passes the algorithm, then we will support it. If your "customized SLE" doesn't pass the algorithm, then we tell you what needs to be added to your "custom distro" for it to be supported.
It really is a fantastic idea, which, if emulated by others in the open-source world, should make open source the de facto choice for enterprise IT, original equipment manufacturers, and others. This could be a very big deal.