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Mission Critical Linux snags $20 million

General Atlantic Partners invests $20 million in the company, which is populated by numerous former Compaq employees who plan to make Linux as burly as its Unix cousins.

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Stephen Shankland
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General Atlantic Partners has invested $20 million in Mission Critical Linux, a company populated by numerous former Compaq employees who plan to make Linux as burly as its Unix cousins.

Unlike several other Linux start-ups, Mission Critical Linux doesn't plan to use the cash to fund aggressive expansion efforts. "We believe we have critical mass at the moment" with about 80 employees, said chief executive Moiz Kohari.

Linux is a clone of the Unix operating system written largely from scratch by an army of cooperating "open-source" programmers who share software code. It competes both with Unix and Windows, though it's not as mature as either in several ways. Mission Critical Linux aims to bridge that gap by offering software and services to clients. The company currently has deals to help TurboLinux, Alpha Processor and SGI improve Linux and hopes to get more customers soon.

The company, founded in July 1999, is based in Lowell, Mass., near the former high-tech corridor populated by vanished computer companies such as Digital Equipment, Data General and Apollo.

Some of the money will be spent on marketing, Kohari said, a necessity if the company is to win businesses from older Linux specialists such as Linuxcare, VA Linux Systems or Red Hat, not to mention giants such as IBM's global services division, which Kohari considers to be his company's biggest competitor.

The company hopes to make more of a splash in two weeks, when it plans to release software to the open-source community that will make Linux computers able to take over from one another if a linked computer crashes, Kohari said. Other companies, including Red Hat, Cobalt Networks, and Steeleye Technology, are working on similar products, in general referred to as "failover clustering."

The company already has released two packages under the General Public License, the open-source license used by Linux and several other open-source software projects.

One lets programmers scrutinize the state of their computer after it crashes, Kohari said. It's also useful for analyzing the state of a computer that's running fine, he added.

The other package lets a computer administrator preserve the state of a crashed computer's memory--what's known as a "core dump"--while rebooting the computer. Usually, rebooting erases all that information, so administrators have to choose between preserving the information and quickly getting the machine up and running again.

To write all this software, Mission Critical Linux has hired many old Unix hands from Compaq, IBM, Sun Microsystems and others, Kohari said. The employees include several of the original architects of Digital Unix, which became Tru64 Unix in 1999 after Compaq acquired Digital in 1998, as well as Digital's OpenVMS operating system.

Currently, Mission Critical Linux has its competitive sights set on IBM Global Services, famed for its ability to attract and reassure the world's biggest customers. IBM has been putting pressure on Linux start-ups, though most agree IBM's endorsement of Linux so far has done more to help Linux companies by lending credibility to the operating system.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice president of technology and strategy at IBM and the leader of Big Blue's Linux effort, argues there's room for everyone.

"We are doing Linux not to help the world along; we're doing it because we see it as being a huge business opportunity," he said in an interview today. However, he added, "I am sure there is more than enough business for us to do very well and Mission Critical Linux to do very well."

Although Linux is still popular with computing companies, Wall Street has lost much of the enthusiasm it showered on Linux in 1999.

Kohari isn't deterred by the lost luster of Linux. "We're making sure we have a fairly conservative business model?We'll make sure we have enough cash left in the bank to take us through any downturns in the market," he said.

He doesn't say whether he's conservative enough to demand that profitability come before an initial public offering, saying only, "We're certainly hoping to be profitable within the next two years."

Apparently, General Atlantic Partners wasn't deterred either by the hard treatment investors have given high-tech stocks in general and Linux stocks in particular. The company gave its verbal commitment to invest in Mission Critical Linux before the market declined and carried through with the funding, Kohari said.