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Will Red Hat's success spark backlash?

Growing investments in Linux may be a rising tide lifting all Linux boats, but Red Hat is getting many of the big deals and that might irk some in the open source movement.

Growing investments in Red Hat may be a rising tide lifting all Linux boats, but it appears that Red Hat is getting a bigger boat out of the deal as well.

Red Hat is the beneficiary of investments from four major computing companies, and the company's founder says all the other Linux distributors will benefit from the investment as well. That might be true, say industry observers, but they won't benefit as much as Red Hat.

While other Linux distributors do in fact benefit indirectly from the investment, Red Hat is the clear beneficiary and is walking a fine line between boasting of its success and alienating some in the Linux community, said Gartner Group analyst George Weiss.

"The Linux community is sensitive to any one player dominating the open source community. The members of the Linux community who are really libertarian are going to feel affronted that the vendors are starting to...pick the winner in the market," Weiss said. "The more Red Hat piles these investments up, the more it looks to the community that there is a 'standardization effort' around Red Hat."

Minority investment announcements in Red Hat from IBM, Compaq Computer, Novell, and Oracle prove that there is widespread industry momentum behind Linux, and that backing will help other companies that sell and support Linux, Red Hat CEO Robert Young told CNET today. And that helps the whole open source movement behind Linux, because Red Hat contributes its enhancements back to the entire Linux community, he said.

Information technology personnel--the corporate honchos in charge of companies' computing infrastructure--might well see the investments in Red Hat more positively, Weiss added. The increasing investments "might be construed as something of a consolidation effect in the industry," he said.

Young chafes at accusations that his company has sold out the Linux community, though. "As Red Hat becomes more successful, more people get suspicious or concerned," he said. "But all the thinking people in the Linux space agree that the reason we are successful is that we are creating more Linux users than anyone else."

The success of the company, which last year shipped 400,000 copies of Linux, is the result of the technical merits of Red Hat's product and of its marketing efforts, he said. "None of the Slackware users have ever been forced to change to Red Hat. We have no ability to manage or control that. We live by the rules of the community." Slackware is a Linux distribution that gained early prominence but has lost ground to Red Hat.

And other Linux distributors directly benefit from Red Hat's work, Young added. "Every line of code that Red Hat writes, we publish under the terms of the General Public License," Young said, referring to the GNU license that lets people modify and distribute the software. "These companies recognized Red Hat as the best team to partner with...for developing technology in Linux they would like to see deployed broadly in the open source space."

The core programming instructions of Linux, a Unix-like operating system, are freely available to anyone in a programming model called "open source." This method stands in contrast to the proprietary model underlying operating systems such as Microsoft Windows or Compaq's Tru64 Unix, formerly called Digital Unix.

Compaq cements Linux support
Compaq's investment in Red Hat shores up the Linux distributor's efforts to sell Linux on Compaq's Alpha chip-based systems and in making sure Compaq's Tru64 Unix ties in well with Linux in networks with both operating systems, said Don Jenkins, vice president of marketing for Compaq's Unix software division.

"We think Linux is a very serious development in the computing world," Jenkins said. He noted that Digital Equipment Corporation--a company Compaq acquired in 1998--has supported Linux for five years, in particular with the effort to get the operating system working on its Alpha processors. In addition, "We worked with Red Hat for several years," currently the only Linux distributor that supports Alpha processors, he said.

However, Debian, a noncommercial Linux distributor, started offering support for Alpha in its newest release this week.

Compaq is one of several companies with a Unix product to embrace Linux in one way or another; others include IBM, Santa Cruz Operation, Silicon Graphics, Hewlett-Packard, and Sun Microsystems.

Linux and Tru64 Unix are complementary products, Jenkins said, with Tru64 Unix being better-suited to the high end with features such as support for clustering, hot-swapping of components, and many processors. "It will take quite a long time for Linux to mature to that point," he said.

Novell: Linux a net gain
Novell, with its NetWare operating system, is another company whose product line overlaps with Linux. But Novell stands to gain more than it does to lose, said Blake Modersitzki, director of strategic investments. "We saw that association with the market leader was a good thing," he said.

"I don't think it competes with NetWare," he added. "If you look at enterprise customers, they live in a multiplatform environment anyway," and making sure Linux can work with other operating systems will make customers happy.

Though Modersitzki and Young declined to offer specifics, they said Linux fits into Novell's strategy of advancing its Novell Directory Services (NDS) management software.

Support for Linux is growing but not universal. For example, enterprise resource planning software vendors--companies noted for their Fortune 500 customers--aren't as warm to Linux. While SAP has announced plans for a Linux port, Peoplesoft and J.D. Edwards say their customers aren't demanding software for Linux.

Database vendors, on the other hand, are keenly interested, with many observers believing that Linux will advance from its current stronghold in handling Web, email, file, and print services into data delivery as well.

The investment from Oracle will help Red Hat make sure Linux has the right stuff for heavy-duty use, Young said. Top Web sites are driven by heavy-duty database technology, where Oracle is a leader, he said.

"They're the people we need to test the Red Hat Linux operating system against. If it runs Oracle databases, it'll run anyone's databases efficiently and optimally," Young said.

IBM, for its part, is a big enough company that it can afford to invest not only in Red Hat, but also in the other top-tier commercial Linux distributors, Caldera Systems, SuSE, and Pacific Hi-Tech, Weiss said.

Intel and Netscape Communications already have equity investments in Red Hat. Red Hat also is a key player in plans by IBM, Compaq, Dell, and HP to offer Linux-ready servers.

Although Linux can obtained for free or for relatively low cost, proponents consider the operating system a good choice for other reasons, such as its reliability and the fact that it can be customized.