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Red Hat tries again with Linux enthusiasts

Two years after first attempt fell short, renewed effort looks beyond employees for developer insights.

Two years after its first attempt fell short, Red Hat is trying again to reach beyond its own employees for help developing its Linux line.

In early 2003, the Raleigh, N.C.-based company launched Fedora, a free Linux package. The company had two objectives. It hoped numerous users would be drawn to the gratis software, making it a good proving ground for components the company was considering for use in its top-selling Red Hat Enterprise Linux, or "RHEL," package.

It also hoped to inspire those users to begin developing and maintaining their own components within Fedora--making Red Hat a more vital and central part of the open-source realm, boosting the number of enthusiasts familiar with its products, and making Fedora a better beta program for RHEL.

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What's new:
Red Hat is trying to rejuvenate Fedora, an effort to get outside programmers to participate in the development of the company's Linux products. The top Linux seller is sharing code, launching a conference and accommodating outside projects.

Bottom line:
If successful, Red Hat could speed development, help train new Red Hat experts, make itself a more central part of the Linux universe and fend off rival projects such as Gentoo and Sun Microsystems' Solaris.

More stories on Linux and Fedora

Three versions of Fedora have been released so far, and the company is happy with how users have helped RHEL. But the community effort has fallen short at a time when students and open-source enthusiasts have plenty of other channels for their cooperative energies.

"One of the mistakes we made early on when we made the split between RHEL and Fedora was we told everybody that Fedora was public, come help us out," said Greg Dekoenigsberg, Red Hat's community relations manager. "We got lots of people responding," but Red Hat couldn't accept much beyond simple bug reports.

"There just wasn't much they were able to do," he said. "(This time) we want to make sure we have systems and processes to make sure these people can contribute."

In the years since Fedora was launched, the Linux world hasn't stood still. About four months ago open-source programmers launched Fedora alternative Ubuntu Linux. Whitebox Linux got started shortly after the first Fedora release. Gentoo, begun in 2001, has gained a higher profile. And Red Hat rival Sun Microsystems has begun trying to woo developers to its own soon-to-be-open-source operating system project, OpenSolaris.

But Red Hat now has begun specific moves to pump up Fedora and stay cutting-edge. If successful, the company could speed development, prime new generations of Red Hat experts and maintain ties with programmers in a way proprietary software rivals such as Microsoft can't.

Among the changes coming to Fedora:

• Red Hat has opened up the source code repository--governed by software called Concurrent Version System, or CVS--so outsiders can see the latest software that's in the works. Later, outsiders will be able to approve software submissions into CVS, Dekoenigsberg said.

• The company has also begun a project called Fedora Extras, through which others can maintain software packages that are outside the Fedora Core projects Red Hat is responsible for. Red Hat likely will lighten its own load by transferring some projects in Core to Extras, Dekoenigsberg said.

• Red Hat will hold its first-ever Fedora User and Developer Conference--FUDcon--at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Feb. 18 and 19, right after the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in Boston. The conference will be used to hash out issues such as who may commit code to CVS and what qualifications are necessary for packages to be accepted into Extras.

• In addition, the company is offering publicly accessible servers to automate the process of building Fedora Core and Extras software--and ensuring that components don't conflict with each other.

The promise of Fedora
One developer who has benefited from Red Hat's new policies is Colin Charles, a 20-year-old Malaysian programmer studying in Australia. He's one of a handful of programmers working to create a new version of Fedora for computers using IBM's Power processor family--most commonly the PowerPC used in Macintosh machines, but also the chips in IBM's pSeries servers.

"CVS helps a lot, especially when you want to try out new packages from the development tree to see if the PPC (PowerPC) issues are fixed or not," Charles said in an e-mail interview. Almost everything in the current Fedora product works on Fedora PPC--including the OpenOffice suite for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations.

And Red Hat could in turn benefit from Charles' work. The company must maintain a version of its Enterprise Linux for Power processors and expects at some point to make a PowerPC version a standard part of the Fedora suite.

"Down the line, that's probably inevitable," Dekoenigsberg said. Red Hat programmers Paul Nasrat and David Woodhouse also are involved in Fedora/PPC, Charles added.

The move mirrors what happened with a version of Fedora for x86 processors such as Intel's Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron. A version of Fedora that supported new 64-bit memory extensions for x86 chips first came from outside programmers, but now it's a standard part of Red Hat's Fedora releases.

Split personality
For most of its history, Red Hat had only one version of its operating system. That software was available as a free download and was certified by various server and software companies. But in 2002, Red Hat embarked on a plan to split its line in two and create the slow-changing RHEL, which comes with certifications, long-term guarantees for support and bug fixes, and a mandatory per-computer price tag; and fast-changing Fedora, which is free, uncertified, relatively unsupported, and packed with the latest upgrades.

Selling annual subscriptions to RHEL helped push Red Hat into profitability. But it also alienated some, such as academic customers who were attracted to no-cost Linux.

One person unhappy with the split was Brian Gilman, president and founder of bioinformatics start-up Panther Informatics, which sells consulting services to pharmaceutical companies and others.

"I was taken aback that I had to pay $999 or something for what I could download as I chose. My first thought was, 'I'm done with Red Hat. That's too expensive,'" Gilman said in an interview. But eventually he bit the bullet. "My customers started telling me they needed to know I was running an enterprise-class system."

For internal use, though, Gilman is still happy with Fedora. "I run Fedora on boxes that are not critical to the business endeavors and critical to my customers," he said.

Red Hat: the corporate power
Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff believes Red Hat will continue to see competition from volunteer efforts such as Gentoo and one of the original versions of Linux, Debian.

"They (Red Hat) now are really viewed as the big commercial company," Haff said. "They can probably over time increase the user community involvement to some degree, but things like Gentoo and Debian are more natural places for the community to get involved."

But that's not such a bad thing, he added. For one thing, Red Hat still has plenty of interactions with open-source programmers of individual packages. And for another, Fedora's relative quality will help ensure a strong user base and a healthy amount of feedback.

"Fedora is a more polished and easier-to-install package than those more community-oriented efforts today," he said.