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What About the Linux End Users?

What About the Linux End Users?

On Monday, Linus Torvalds announced that software developers making contributions to Linux would have to “sign their work” and “vouch for its origin” via a Developer’s Certificate of Origin. Linus claims that the Developer’s Certification of Origin is needed primarily as a trail of documentation that makes developers accountable for the code that they write for Linux. In other words, there is a need to associate code with a contributor.

This announcement is driven primarily by the SCO lawsuit against IBM. However, it is my view that corporate enterprise users would have eventually requested something like this anyway regardless of the SCO lawsuit as Linux moves more and more into the enterprise. It just happened quicker because of the lawsuit. Corporate users do not want the uncertainty of facing IP lawsuits if they use open source software. When they buy a product, they want to know if there is open source software in it, and sometimes they want to know the origin of the software.

Many companies now ship products with open source code in them. It could be Apache bundled with a system, or it could be Linux in large HP printers. I know of one case in which a buyer requested that open source code be removed from the software that he was buying. I think that that is an exception, but some buyers are worried about the SCO lawsuit and accountability for code.

The procedure for adding code to Linux has been relatively informal and on occasion lacking documentation. Many enterprises have become accustomed to this practice because the software that has been produced by open source projects like Linux is of very high quality. Today, the Linux development process generally works as follows. Individual developers own various segments of Linux code. These developers are well known (to the Linux community) and trusted by Linus and other open source developers. A code owner generally controls what new code and functionality are added to the code for which he/she is responsible.

I met with Stuart Cohen in Boston right after he became CEO of OSDL. We talked about the direction that OSDL might be going with respect to Linux. At that time, I suggested that as enterprises began adopting Linux and using it to run mission-critical applications the process for developing Linux would begin to change, primarily by demands from corporate users.

Proprietary software vendors have schedules for releasing software (we know that they don’t always make them), a procedure for collecting features/functionality from their users, they let users know what features will be in the next release before the release is made available, and there is documentation for the release. Corporate users want the same thing for Linux and open source software. Note that I am not suggesting that the way Linux or open source software is developed should be like that of proprietary software. I am only talking about process.

The schedule for Linux is now better advertised than before, the features in a release are available well in advance of the release, and the documentation is better for Linux. But where Linux is still lacking is in the collection of features from end users. By end users, I am talking about companies like the Menasha Corporation, a paper products company in Neenha, Wisconsin with revenue of over $1B. How do they get the features that they want included in Linux. We know from experience that proprietary software companies do not always put the features in a software release that we want, but there is a standard process for requesting them, no matter the size of the user or how influential they are.

If Menasha would like to see feature X in the next release of Linux how do they get it included in the potential feature set? Do they have to have a Linux developer on staff that is “accepted” by the Linux community go forward and lobby for the feature to be included in Linux? Do they work through their Linux distributor, Red Hat in this case, to get them to lobby for their feature? Do they try to find a work group at OSDL that is related to their needs? The answer could be any one of the above or none of the above.

Today, large systems vendors, Linux distributors, some infrastructure ISVs such as Oracle, CA, etc., and a few other Linux developers who are not working at one of the above are the ones that determine the feature sets for new releases of Linux. And these influential groups have their own agendas because in many cases they are competitors. OSDL has done a good job trying to recruit new members from the business ISV and end user communities for its work groups where features can make their way into Linux, but the bulk of the OSDL members, especially those with influence, are not end users or business ISVs.

So who is going to work with end users such as Menasha Corporation, who in 2000 switched from HP-UX to Linux? Or what about Gillette and Staples when they use Linux to run mission-critical applications? They are not computer technology companies and most likely will not have staff members that are insiders with respect to Linux development. If Linux were a proprietary operating system, they would make their requests to the vendor. But who do they make their requests to for Linux and who will listen?

More Stories By Bill Claybrook

Bill Claybrook is President of New River Marketing Research, a marketing research firm that focuses on Linux, open source software, and commercial grid computing. He performs primary research and helps marketing organizations plan for new product offerings and develop go-to-market strategies, as well as develop marketing analysis content. Prior to entering commercial computing and marketing research, he was Associate Professor of Computer Science at Virginia Tech and the University of Connecticut, as well as Professor of Software Engineering at the Wang Institute of Software Engineering.

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Most Recent Comments
Sigurd 06/09/04 03:57:30 AM EDT

There is a huge flaw in your comparison in that you imply that proprietary software will always implement requested patches.

Linux end users have a few advantages:

1) Because they can shop around with the source code they can approach several sources for a fix to their problem. This has to increase their chances over a single commercial source that will implement only if it sees the $$s to do it.

2) Linux programmers are just as likely to respond to a few dollars as proprietary software -- perhaps more so.

3) Because they can inform themselves with the source they can ask much better questions and find a wider educated community on the web. This also increases their chance of finding someone else with the same problem who might have already found a solution. Proprietary code tends to be left with something like 'printing doesn't work on my networked seikosiesha printer' -- open source will allow them to have someone determine the modules or libraries that have the problem.

You're right in your implication that a company without computer consultants, and with no will to understand the code they run or pay someone to help them with their problems is without much support unless they look for it --- but the same is absolutely true of proprietary software, perhaps more so.

burbles 06/06/04 08:51:38 AM EDT

Just burbles from some poor guy who can't read EULA's. I doubt seriously that MS, IBM or Sun would actually make a modded version of their OS for any customer. From the promises I've read in the EULAs there certainly isn't even a willingness to hold themselvs responsible for guarenteeing the basic functionality of the products they want so much money for.

If the agreement I have to accept from the big commercial software vendors basically dis-avows any and all responsibility for anything and everything, and promises to leave me on my own if anything goes wrong, then what do I gain from using commercial software other than the right to be audited? At least with open source software there is an interested community that frequently has answers to problems. Yes, that community is usually very hard on people who ask questions that have already been answered, but isn't that better than a place that guarentees that you will get no answer -- and wants your money too?

ptreb 06/02/04 04:49:47 AM EDT

As I seriously doubt any of those companies would be running vanilla kernels, why would they be approaching the kernel maintainers in the first place? There seems always to be this confusion between "Linux" and "Linux Distributions". Linux is fairly useless on it's own to most. You need applications to make it useful. Unless you are going to bundle it up yourself, you usually need to install a "distribution" such as Redhat, Suse, Debian etc.

If changes required are indeed to be made to the kernel, and the changes will benefit all linux kernel users, then talk to the kernel maintainers, it will likely be added, and it will be added a lot faster if contributions of development or funding are made.

If the changes will only benefit the company itself, or are application orientated, then first stop would be the hardware vendor (If it's driver related), then the distribution maintainer, failing that a third party developer could be used or hire an in house developer.

Larry Foard 05/27/04 09:36:25 AM EDT

The advantage of linux over a commercial OS is that you don't have to go
begging, you just do it yourself or pay someone to do it for you. With all
the money saved on licenses there should be plenty of cash left over for
this. Don't bother going to redhat and paying for there overhead, pay
an individual, its quite easy to find thousands of names of developers in
the credits for various open source projects.

Peter Larson 05/26/04 06:57:01 PM EDT

An interesting point in the article is the problem of a company requesting a change, but having difficulty because the developer is employed by a competitor.

This is the crux of the commercial world. If the request is for a general change to the kernal or other system app, there wouldn't be any issues at all, as the change is good for all.

However, if the change requested is for commercial gain, or commercially sensitive, then it isn't an Open Source issue. Since the competitor employs a Unix programmer, they obviously think it gives them some sort of commercial advantage. Maybe it is also in the other company's interest to employ one as well.

Job offers accepted!

Amy Wohl 05/26/04 04:21:48 PM EDT

This is Open Source, folks. That's the point. If you need some code, write it. If you are not a technical company, you have all the usual ways of acquiring code -- outside developers, etc., including the resources of the open source community, who can handle small projects on an ad hoc basis more easily because of the transparency of the open source environment.

I think that it's just that we're unaccustomed to the new possibilities. It won't seem strange once we've figured it out.

LinCoder 05/26/04 11:17:09 AM EDT

'Fraid I have to agree with 'Silly Premise'; if a company doesn't have the where-with-all to put a coder or two on staff and develop the software that will give their company product an edge, consider shutting the doors. Simply put, develop in-house without involving closed-source suppliers. Instead of whining about it, they should do something about it...

Ernie Tartaglia 05/26/04 09:49:48 AM EDT

Two things that unclear for me in this article:

1. Are you really talking about Linux, the kernel? If a company in the $1B range, as in your example, is interested in new kernel feature(s),I assert that they have the resources available to become a "community" member and give back by hiring a "like minded" kernel hacker or two as you suggested. Certainly HP, IBM and other tech companies have done so, why not non-tech companies? Certainly they would benefit greatly from having a kernel expert on staff.

2. If this is not a kernel issue, Linus' announcement is a non-issue unless the project has the same "signature" requirement. You only mentioned Apache and linux in HP printers. As I said above, HP supports kernel development. I'm sure that most projects with OSDL affiliation would welcome corporate support.

Thank you for your timely and thought provoking piece.

Silly premise. 05/26/04 09:34:44 AM EDT

This is a ridiculous story that seems to ignore the whole premise of Open Source. Nobody is stopping anybody from writing code. If multi-billion dollar corporations can't afford to hire a coder or two then how do they expect free software to suddenly morph into their magic solution?
And the apparently unspoken assumption that closed source companies would cater to their every whim is naive and out of touch with reality.

Chris 05/26/04 09:29:35 AM EDT

Or they could ask the Vendor that they got the product from. Linux on it's own is not a product and therefore doesn't come with the same privileges. Linux products come from Linux vendors and there is no reason that you can't ask the vendor to make a change to the product. Almost every major linux distribution modifies most of the major packages from their default in some way. How is this worthy of an article without that answer?

jobber 05/26/04 09:12:56 AM EDT

They are free to write features they want ... hire programmers to do it ... either GPL it if they distribute or keep it internal if they don't ... it is not a hard concept to fugure out!

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