The heat's on in Linux land

Caldera CEO Ransom Love explains what the UnitedLinux agreement means--for Linux, for customers and for Red Hat, which was left out of the deal.

6 min read
The ink is barely dry on the UnitedLinux agreement, through which four companies plan to merge their separate Linux products into a single version.

Ransom Love, chief executive of Caldera International--which is one of the founding members of UnitedLinux, along with Turbolinux, SuSE and Conectiva--talked to ZDNet U.K. about the deal.

He explained why the pact is so significant for Linux, how it relates to market leader Red Hat, and what it means for customers.

Q: Why are only four Linux companies--Caldera, Turbolinux, Conectiva and SuSE--involved in UnitedLinux?
A: It was very hard to give birth to this project with four Linux companies. Every extra company adds complexity, and it took nearly eight months to pull this off as it was. The four companies involved have four very distinct markets, and between us we have a global coverage. We would have invited Red Hat, but there was not time. We wanted to get this deal finalized before the summer; we only signed the agreement on Wednesday night.

The competition is not Red Hat. We will go out and visit other Linux players and ask them to participate. We have already talked to Red Hat and Mandrake. The issue is not to compete with Red Hat but to look at how we can grow Linux on a worldwide basis. If we can do this, then we grow the pie and we can all do very well out of it.

The intent is to include many individual players and members. Companies will be welcome to sponsor and participate in the initiative, and it will provide a nucleus to cross-license technology between one another. The nice thing about this is that we stop competing in areas where we have no differentiator anyway.

Why is the UnitedLinux initiative necessary?
There are two major reasons as to why Linux is not being more widely adopted in the enterprise: certification of business applications and fragmentation of the code base. We believe that with this announcement we have solved both of these. With the four Linux companies involved, we get a global perspective, we have a strong global network, but more importantly, we have a single product that can be certified one time.

The issue is not to compete with Red Hat but to look at how we can grow Linux on a worldwide basis.
Currently there are many challenges with Linux applications--we (the UnitedLinux members) all ship versions of Linux with different libraries and different versions of the kernel. In theory, you can get one application to work on different versions of Linux, but it's not always that easy--you sometimes have to put files in different folders depending on the distribution.

We will still retain some differentiators, but we said, "Let's produce a single standards-based version of the operating system built for business servers."

Each distribution will have one common CD that has a common kernel, libraries and installation routine. This base system will be compatible so that independent software vendors can better support Linux with their applications.

What is the problem with the Linux code base as it stands now?
Historically, Linux has moved quickly with releases and so on, sometimes releasing kernels that have not always been backwards compatible. We are building the business disciplines to make sure that we don't break backwards compatibility when we launch a new version of the operating system.

Caldera's distribution team has been merged with SuSE's distribution team in Nuremberg, Germany, together with some people from Turbolinux and Conectiva. They will work with the open-source community to pull in the parts to create the common distribution.

So UnitedLinux will remain an open-source project?
Absolutely. The only difference is that the UnitedLinux binaries will not be freely distributed. People will be able to download the source code and compile their own binaries, but they will not be able to use the UnitedLinux brand.

How will the UnitedLinux project be governed?
The four Linux companies (Caldera, Conectiva, SuSE and Turbolinux) will form a board to budget for and organize the initiative. They will also create a technical steering committee to help determine the features that should be added. Then there will be an opportunity for industry members who want to give input and have their voices heard; this group, through its own technical committee, will get access to road maps so they can develop and certify their applications. The industry technical committee will meet face to face twice a year and have a monthly teleconference.

We are bringing the ISVs (independent software vendors) in from the beginning. We believe they will be keen to certify their applications--and likewise for the hardware vendors. This is a big opportunity for them, as it means big savings.

UnitedLinux is focused on a server version of Linux. Will there ever be a desktop version?
We have talked about UnitedLinux for developers in a workstation environment, but the immediate opportunity is clearly in business platforms, and that means servers.

Was the decision to create UnitedLinux a result of the dot-com collapse, which hit share prices of many Linux companies and forced you to scale back your own development initiatives?
Clearly, economics do drive business decisions. But if you think about this, it is in harmony with the whole Linux idea. This provides the business model that Linux has been lacking, and there is less duplication of resources.

So how will the economic model work for UnitedLinux?
Remember, we solve those two problems I mentioned earlier, and with the four Linux companies and associated ISVs, customers will be able more easily to deploy Linux on a global scale. By creating a single certified environment we will have more hardware and software choices for the customers.

Clearly, economics do drive business decisions. But if you think about this, it is in harmony with the whole Linux idea.
Caldera will provide the product through its reseller channel. One problem that resellers currently face is that Linux is free. This way we give them more of a profit motive to sell Linux, because by adopting UnitedLinux they can generate more revenue.

This means they will be charging more than previously. Can you say how much more?
Pricing of UnitedLinux will be determined closer to the release date. Each company will set its own prices--there will be no price fixing, but there will be a good profit incentive for all involved. What's different is that this product will include binaries and a full 12-month service agreement, so the business model will be a little different from what we normally see in the Linux world.

When do you expect to ship the final distribution?
We will have an alpha version ready in (the third quarter) and a beta by the end of that quarter. We expect to ship the first full version to customers by November. Each company will provide its own brand, but it will all be powered by Linux.

How do you square UnitedLinux with the Free Standards Group, which was formed to reduce the difficulties of getting software to run on different Linux distributions?
The Free Standards Group is about creating specifications for others to implement. We will give them a complete implementation of (the Linux Standard Base) but will go beyond the specification because we will have things like a common installation. We will also be fully compliant with stuff like Li18nux.

What does all this mean for the operating systems you acquired from SCO--namely, OpenLinux and OpenServer?
We are not stopping development of our Unix operating systems and have upgrades to OpenServer and OpenUnix coming. OpenUnix will run UnitedLinux applications by the end of the year, and at that time OpenLinux 4.0 (Caldera's Linux distribution) will ship with the UnitedLinux kernel. The message to developers is to develop Linux applications--that is, develop UnitedLinux applications--so they can deploy to either OpenUnix or OpenLinux or any of the other UnitedLinux distributions out there.

So OpenUnix will continue in parallel to OpenLinux?
Yes. OpenUnix could well keep going in parallel to OpenLinux. We are not moving OpenUnix onto Intel's 64-bit platform, but (Intel's current 32-bit architecture) will be around for a long time yet.