Unified Linux effort won't faze Red Hat

A move by four companies to back a single version of the operating system might help those allies--and boost Linux's popularity--though it's unlikely to dent Red Hat's dominance.

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6 min read
A move by four sellers of Linux to unite behind a single version of the operating system might help those allies--and boost Linux's popularity--but it isn't likely to dent the dominance of the top dog, Red Hat.

Turbolinux and Caldera International in the United States, Conectiva in Brazil, and SuSE in Germany announced Thursday that they will merge their separate Linux products into a single version called UnitedLinux by the end of the year. The intent of the plan is for the companies to share research costs and to make it easier for software and hardware companies to certify that their products work with Linux.

Although the move might boost the allies' fortunes modestly, it probably won't turn the tables on dominant Linux seller Red Hat. Even pulling together, the UnitedLinux allies simply don't have enough clout to influence the market, said analysts.

"Very little will change," said IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky, who monitors the worldwide sales and revenue of Linux and other operating systems. "If you add up all those people's market share by shipments, it adds up to less than 20 percent of the market. Red Hat has at least twice that share."

The UnitedLinux name is something of a misnomer because the group conspicuously neglected to invite Red Hat until the day before the announcement, and few expect the Raleigh, N.C., company to sign on. Also missing are MandrakeSoft, whose software is used on PCs and higher-powered servers, and Sun Microsystems, which plans to unveil a Red Hat-based version of Linux in the summer.

"It's definitely a pooling of resources in an effort to gain critical mass as a viable alternative to the dominant Linux seller, Red Hat," said Illuminata analyst David Freund. "They are essentially trying to perform an encirclement maneuver geographically."

Mark de Visser, Red Hat vice president of marketing, said that trimming the number of Linux versions is a good way to win support from software companies, but he added that his company has no plans to join the new alliance. "We have that application support today," he said.

UnitedLinux might not be a miracle cure for its members' financial woes, but it's good for Linux, according to analysts, its members and even Red Hat. And Linux could use a shot in the arm.

A needed lift
When Linux was booming along with the Internet and the high-tech economy in the late 1990s, the four main sellers of Linux were Red Hat, SuSE, Caldera and Turbolinux. Each signed support agreements with IBM, critical steps in granting serious credibility to the comparatively young operating system, which began in 1991 as the hobby of Linus Torvalds, then a computer-science student.

Boosted by an open-source programming method that let companies collaborate and drew swarms of loyal programmers to the cause, Linux rose to the point where Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer named it the company's No. 1 threat.

Caldera: Red Hat not the target
CEO Ransom Love says why UnitedLinux
matters and how it relates to rival Red Hat.

Now times have become more desperate. Start-ups such as Mission Critical Linux and Linuxcare faltered. SuSE and Caldera have undergone job cuts and reorganizations, while Turbolinux has refocused on higher-level software. Even Red Hat has only flirted with profitability, with $79 million in revenue for its fiscal year ended Feb. 28.

Linux companies, like all others, now scrape for every computing dollar spent and take any measure possible to eke out an advantage over competitors. Out of this dire environment, UnitedLinux was born.

UnitedLinux pools some resources while giving much of the technological control to SuSE--a recognition of the reality that SuSE was the only Linux seller that had a development staff with depth comparable to Red Hat's.

"I almost don't consider Caldera and Turbolinux to be in the Linux distribution business anymore," said Bill Claybrook, an analyst at market research firm Aberdeen Group.

Indeed, the combined efforts from the other companies will boost SuSE's development staff only by about one-third, said Holger Dyroff, director of North American sales for SuSE and the company's former chief executive.

The first version of UnitedLinux, set to debut early in the last quarter of this year, will essentially be the next version of SuSE's advanced server edition augmented with other companies' features, Dyroff said. Those improvements include better support for Asian language characters from Turbolinux and basic "failover" software from Conectiva, which lets one server take over when another fails.

SuSE's work to gain all-important certification from hardware and software companies will carry through to the UnitedLinux version, Dyroff said.

With UnitedLinux, each company will sell the same base package of Linux--the kernel at the heart of the software and several higher-level software packages such as user interfaces and configuration tools. They will differentiate in marketing and sales techniques, adding their own components, such as Caldera's Volution or Turbolinux's PowerCockpit management software.

While the companies are pooling developers and research funding, each will keep revenue from the products and services it sells, Dyroff said.

To succeed, UnitedLinux will have to avoid problems that have waylaid prior consortia in which competitors have tried to cooperate, IDC's Kusnetzky said.

"Who's managing this? Is this going to turn out to be a waltz for four people?" he said. "Without any management, this looks to me exactly like the unification efforts of the Unix community in the 1980s, the ACE Initiative. There were a whole bunch of players, no clear leader and a wonderful, dramatic announcement that resulted in no products."

AT&T's ACE Initiative in 1991 sought to unify interfaces that higher-level programs would use to communicate with different versions of Unix, but the move failed to fix the fragmented Unix market. UnitedLinux, by contrast, uses identical Linux software at its foundation, not merely compatible versions of Unix.

Who will gain?
SuSE increased its revenue 40 percent to $35 million in 2001 and believes the UnitedLinux effort will let the company achieve its goal to increase revenue a further 25 percent to 30 percent in 2002, Dyroff said.

Conectiva hopes to gain wider support by tapping into UnitedLinux's certification by major software and hardware companies "that are mainly outside our reach," a Conectiva representative said in a conference call Thursday. "This will strengthen our capability to deal with large projects."

Gartner analysts George Weiss and Andrew Butler say the concept of UnitedLinux is sound in principle and urgently needed. But the venture could splinter in many ways.

see commentary

The biggest beneficiaries, though, likely won't be the UnitedLinux members, but rather companies that are hobbled by having to support a wide number of Linux versions.

"For us, life is going to be much easier because of UnitedLinux," said Joseph Reger, chief technology officer of Fujitsu-Siemens, which has to sell its products with different versions of Linux for different geographical areas.

IBM and Hewlett-Packard, the two largest server sellers, each said they'd support UnitedLinux while making it clear Red Hat isn't losing out.

"Our platforms going forward will be Red Hat and UnitedLinux," said Judy Chavis, director of HP's Linux program office. UnitedLinux helps HP achieve Linux support with partners such as Oracle, BEA Systems and SAP, she said.

"IBM will fully support UnitedLinux across our entire portfolio of hardware and software and services," said Scott Handy, director for Linux software solutions at IBM, adding, "We will continue to support Red Hat aggressively across the same portfolio."

But making Linux easier for software and hardware companies to support, and therefore for customers to buy, might actually backfire for UnitedLinux.

"The more Linux gets accepted in the enterprise, the bigger advantage Red Hat has," Aberdeen's Claybrook said. "If Linux moves into the enterprise 50 percent faster, then Red Hat is going to gain 75 percent of the advantage."