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Linux Dreams Big, Gets Small, and Struggles in the Middle

by Derrick Story

Now that last year's instant millionaires have either come back to earth or left the planet altogether, people got down to real business at this year's LinuxWorld Expo in New York.

I observed two distinct trends rising above the din: Linux courting enterprise business, and embedded Linux showing some real promise. In between these two efforts, Linux on the desktop is still trying to catch fire despite heated efforts by Eazel and Ximian.

New York view.

Open-source advertisers cleverly placed billboards along the conference shuttle bus routes in NYC. (Photos by Derrick Story)

Inside the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

The high-tech look of the Jacob Javits Convention Center was an appropriate backdrop for the LinuxWorld Expo.

Larry Augustin, VA Linux Systems CEO.

Larry Augustin, VA Linux CEO, discusses how open source can effectively compete with traditional commercial offerings.

Ximian booth.

Ximian created a jungle environment at the show, and their demos were popular.

Andy Hertzfeld

Andy Hertzfeld casually discusses Eazel's direction in the press lounge.

Linus Torvalds

Linus Torvalds was plucked from the audience to participate in the Golden Penguin competition on Wednesday.


Linux and the enterprise

"Think big" was the message presented by Larry Augustin, VA Linux Systems CEO, in his keynote address titled, "Clash of the Titans."

Augustin presented a persuasive spin on the current economic downturn in the technology by stating that leaner times could actually help open-source solutions break through the firewall and reach IT managers. How so? Because open source costs less to install and maintain. To support his assertion, he cited a study conducted by Deutsche Banc and IBM that showed that 40 percent of large companies' IT budgets were consumed by integrating and optimizing different proprietary technologies.

Augustin then drove home the point by claiming that open-source software is easily integrated with proprietary software, thereby reducing the bottom line for business. If open-source developers are willing to focus on interoperability, then we should see an increased demand for their services in traditional IT environments.

Another key point was that as business continues to focus on the Internet as a key component, it will begin to realize the open-source advantages -- such as no license fees, faster fixes, better security -- because in large part the Internet is run by open-source technology.

No crystal-ball-gazing keynote would be complete without a bold prediction: By 2004, new Linux server shipments will reach 2 million units, or 30 percent of total units, says Augustin (quoting a Forrester Research study).

Linux clustering challenges the super computer

As improvements in clustering technology have flourished under Linux, super computer customers have been turning to companies such as HP, IBM, SGI, and Compaq instead of traditional big iron vendors because of the lower cost of clustering Linux to meet the same large demands. O'Reilly Executive Editor Laurie Petrycki has been following this growing trend. She reports that Cray will soon begin selling Alpha-based Linux clusters in an effort to serve customers turning to cheaper solutions capable of meeting their needs.

Petrycki also notes that the OSCAR project (Open Source Cluster Applications Resources) has been announced by the National Center for Super Computing Applications and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. OSCAR is a collection of clustering software, and its mission is to make clusters a realistic option for organizations that use high performance computing to accomplish their goals.

Embedded Linux digging in

Transmeta has put together a total mobile computing package with its Crusoe processor and Mobile Linux OS.

The Crusoe processor relies on software to perform many of the functions that are typically handled by hardware. According to Transmeta, this repartitioning reduces the number of transistors needed to perform tasks resulting in a power consumption as low as 10 to 20 milliwatts (compared to one watt for typical PDAs) for everyday applications such as e-mail and Internet browsing. Plus, the processor has full x86 compatibility allowing users to run common applications and Internet plug-ins.

The Crusoe processor consists of a hardware component that serves as its engine and a software layer called "Code Morphing." The Code Morphing software acts as a shell that surrounds the engine but resides beneath the operating system. It then morphs, or translates, x86 instructions to native Crusoe instructions. An interesting side note to Code Morphing is that Linus Torvalds was a member of the team that developed it.

To complement the Crusoe processor, Transmeta has also developed a Mobile Linux distribution for portable devices without hard drives. Mobile Linux efficiently manages power and reduces the memory footprint. Transmeta has said they will release Mobile Linux to the open-source community, although I don't have a specific timeline to report.

The bottom-line claim by Transmeta is that their processor/OS tandem delivers performance comparable to modern desktop computers at a fraction of the energy consumption and in a smaller package.

Another interesting embedded solution was touted by Coventive Technologies, an international Linux-based software company. One of their solutions uses Intel's StrongARM microprocessor combined with an embedded Linux kernel. Coventive's kernel is only 143 KB in size, yet features graphic interfaces along with network, PCI, and TCP/IP support as well as EXT2 and disk functionality.

Coventive's latest success was when it won a contract to provide its software to Legend Computers, China's largest IT company. Legend plans to release its new Linux-based handheld in the second quarter of this year using Coventive's kernel. It will feature an Intel StrongARM processor, 32 MB RAM, 16 MB Flash memory, Compact Flash card functionality, Lithium rechargeable battery, and support for USB and serial ports.

Coventive has ported their kernel to a number of processors including MediaGX, StrongARM, PA-RISC, and ARM-7. They also develop custom applications designed to work efficiently with their kernel.

Jump-starting the Linux GUI

Helix Code has changed its name to Ximian, and has developed an Internet-savvy desktop for Linux that's quite attractive. Hewlett-Packard must have agreed because they are partnering with them to make Ximian GNOME the default desktop on all HP-UX workstations later this year.

The Ximian monkeys were swinging high at LinuxWorld for other reasons too -- they had just secured $15 million in funding from Charles River Ventures. Not bad for a company that gives its software away for free. (Although you can buy the Version 1.0 CD for $25 if you want to bypass the substantial download.)

The Ximian GNOME Desktop is a graphical desktop environment that most non-Linux users would be comfortable with. It includes all the toolkit and core GNOME libraries, the GNOME desktop, and a full set of applications.

Ximian GNOME is compatible with a variety of open-source operating systems including:

  • Red Hat Linux 6.0, 6.1, 6.2, and 7.0
  • TurboLinux 6.0
  • Mandrake 6.1, 7.0 and 7.1
  • Caldera OpenLinux eDesktop 2.4
  • LinuxPPC 2000
  • Debian GNU/Linux (Woody)
  • Yellow Dog Linux Champion Server 1.2
  • SuSE 6.3, 6.4 and 7.0
  • Solaris 2.7 on UltraSPARC

Hot on the heels of Ximian GNOME are the Eazel folks who have just released Preview 3 of Nautilus. This is the final preview version of the handsome file manager for GNOME before the 1.0 version hits the streets later this year.

The Nautilus shell brings together file management, web browsing, and system management into one clean package. This desktop application is easy to use and smoothly interfaces with Eazel's system-management services. Eazel is releasing Nautilus under the GNU General Public License (GPL).

Eazel has struck partnerships with both Sun and Dell to feature Nautilus on selected computers.

Despite the excellent efforts by Ximain and Eazel, interest in desktop environments seems a step behind enterprise solutions and embedded Linux. In part, this could be just the natural progression of open-source penetration into traditional commercial environments.

Many people I talked to believe that businesses will become more interested in desktop solutions once open source has become a substantial part of their everyday IT operations. Individuals, on the other hand, need applications to motivate them to switch platforms. Even though the application side of Linux has improved greatly in the last year, a much better selection is necessary to promote real crossover.

A good demonstration of how essential applications are to the success of an OS was just demonstrated at Macworld SF. Enthusiasm was muted among the press when Steve Jobs, Apple CEO, announced the release of Mac OS X -- that is until the next day when Microsoft confirmed that they would support Mac OS X with a compatible version of Microsoft Office. Many people were saying, "No Office, no go."

Linux doesn't have Microsoft Office, and StarOffice is less compelling. This is also true when you compare Mac/Windows Photoshop to Unix GIMP, and Mac/Windows Internet Explorer 5 to the Unix version of Netscape 6.

This doesn't mean that the attractive Linux desktop is doomed. But I do think that wider acceptance of Linux in the enterprise, combined with development of more top-drawer applications, is necessary before we start seeing Eazel and Ximian on laptops in airport lounges.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit

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