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Lining up for Linux

The open source operating system gains more momentum as executives from Netscape, Oracle, and Intel sing its praises.

    SAN FRANCISCO--Linux is out of the closet and in the boardroom.

    Netscape Communcations, Oracle, and even the Intel half of the "Wintel" duopoly are embracing the open source operating system platform as it gains momentum and acceptability in the marketplace.

    "I sat in a strategy meeting in May and told of a 'secret' platform strategy, because I knew that if I told of a Linux platform publicly, I would have been laughed out of the room," said John Paul, vice president of server technology at Netscape. "I am amazed at the momentum and that I am sitting here on a panel at Oracle Open World talking about Linux."

    Paul joined Linux inventor Linus Torvalds and executives from Oracle and Intel here today to discuss the open source platform and what is driving its newly found fame. They all agreed Linux isn't likely to be a one-hit wonder that fades from the collective memory quickly.

    "The momentum is completely self-sustaining," said Allen Miner, Oracle's vice president of strategic alliances. "It keeps getting bigger and bigger and better and better. Is there anything that can stop the momentum? I don't see what could."

    Linux's popularity is being fueled by a number of factors.

    The main reason is that initial adopters of the system--students and information system workers at universities, followed closely by Internet service providers--have entered the mainstream and brought the system with them. Many have installed the platform in clandestine sites within their new corporate homes. It's only now that corporations are coming forward or even finding out that they have Linux running in their operations.

    But in a strange Catch-22, part of the reason these companies are coming forward is that their mainstream vendors are supporting the system.

    "The biggest thing driving Linux now is the big names behind it," said Ken Shand, Intel's Linux program manager for the enterprise server group. "When you get big names backing Linux, the IT manager gets a better feeling about using it.

    "If you bet your business on Red Hat, the bosses may not know what you are saying," Shand added. "But if you bet your business on Intel or Oracle, they say, 'Yeah, these guys are going to be around for a while.'"

    Red Hat is a leading distributor of Linux and was recently given an infusion of cash from Netscape and Intel.

    The panelists also agreed the answer to the questions of why Linux and why now is the same reason that Torvalds created the operating system in the first place: frustration with the current flavors of Unix, all of which are proprietary and hard to manipulate.

    "The plan was to do Unix, and do it right in a sense, for normal people," Torvalds said. "I built Linux because I was disappointed with my inability to use Unix at home. Unlike a lot of operating system programs that get a lot of press then die off, I wanted Linux to be very down to earth with a real user base."

    It may have taken some time, but it is reaching the point of a real user base as the fastest-growing Unix system in the world with some 7 million users.

    The realization that it is a force to be reckoned with resonated in Silicon Valley the past year as vendors, one after another, hopped on the Linux bandwagon. But maybe even more importantly, it is being heard in Redmond, Washington, causing even Microsoft to take notice and call Linux one of the biggest threats to Windows NT.

    "I am no longer looking at the Unix market as competition," said Torvalds. "I have been much more focused on NT and Windows 98 as targets."

    And anything that scares Microsoft is sure to catch the attention of its fiercest rivals.

    "What Oracle wants to do with Linux is help it dominate the world," said Oracle's Miner. "There is enormous potential here. We have been sending email around internally for three or four years. It was a no-brainer this summer to come to the conclusion that we were going to support Linux."

    Now the only question that remains is whether the vendors who have pledged support for Linux actually will deliver a product.