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Threat of IP Entanglements Grows Alongside Open Source

While IT pros who want to 'scratch their own itch' have turned to Linux and other open source software by the thousands, intellectual property experts say their satisfaction won't circumvent the chilling effect that successful patent litigation could have on innovation.

uring a session at last week's LinuxWorld Conference in San Francisco, Google's Open Source Program Manager Chris DiBona showed slides of the search company's growth—from a few servers in a dorm, where disc arrays were held together with Lego's, to a cramped server room that used a portable fan as its cooling system, to its current server farm configuration, which was a pitch-back slide showing only the servers' lights because Google wants to keep it secret. The constant throughout the company's rapid expansion has been Linux. After making clear that money was no object in Google's choice of platform, DiBona explained the decision to stay with Linux: "We've been really happy with it. We can do what it is we want with it. I can tell exactly what software is running on each machine from the bottom up."

DiBona's comments illustrate how the scratch-your-own-itch mentality has contributed to the growth of Linux implementations and of the use of open source software across the board. (Linux and open source were practically synonymous during the conference. As Martin Fink, HP vice president for Linux, said during his keynote, "LinuxWorld might as well be called OpenSourceWorld.") This mindset values the freedom to manipulate source code and fix one's own bugs whenever they arise. Conversely, it fosters an aversion to relying on a software vendor's support services to do the same, as well as a lack of patience for a bug to be resolved in the next patch or version release. Do-it-yourselfers also bristle at the restrictions that some vendors' licenses can impose.

"LinuxWorld might as well be called OpenSourceWorld."—Martin Fink, HP vice president

More and more of the largest open source software vendors are hastening the trend by allowing developers to participate in the development of their software—perhaps in an attempt to appease the scratch-your-own-itch camp without completely relinquishing control of their products. Novell, makers of the enterprise Linux distribution, SUSE Linux, announced the openSUSE project at the show. "We're opening up the front end of the development process for SUSE Linux," declared David Patrick, Novell vice president for Linux and open source.

The project allows developers to download source code at a much earlier stage of development, according to Patrick. Previously, the public couldn't access the product until Novell released it as SUSE Linux Professional. With openSUSE, participants can contribute feedback through discussion forums and chats and submit code to the SUSE Linux engineering team through Bugzilla. Patrick says Novell will vet the contributions, sifting and prioritizing reported bug fixes. He pledged that the community eventually would have access and submit permissions through CVS or Subversion. The first beta preview of SUSE Linux 10 is available for download now.

Linux in the Enterprise—A Fact, Not a Goal

Linux has established itself as an enterprise software platform that will only continue to grow. In fact, research firm IDC forecasts Linux revenues to rise at a compound annual growth rate of 15 percent during the next four years, ending up at $9.3B by 2009. By contrast the same forecast predicts 6.6 percent growth for Windows, ending up at about $24B. "If you came to LinuxWorld a few years ago," Vice President of Global Enterprise Server Solutions for IDC Jean Bozman explained, "you saw much more of the low-level stuff, just to get it going. Now we're adding a lot more things in the software stack. You can build a whole ecosystem out of Linux."

"You can build a whole ecosystem out of Linux."—IDC Vice President Jean Bozman

Worries about reliability, security, and service seem to have subsided enough for IT departments to entrust their businesses to Linux. Google runs on Linux. And how important are robustness and performance to them? Source code analysis firm Coverity found only 1 percent of Linux defects in the kernel itself. The vast majority exists in device drivers (53 percent), the file system (18 percent), and networking (15 percent), according to Coverity CEO Seth Hallem, who presented these results during his session "Linux Security Report."

As for Linux service, once a concern for organizations that were leery of trusting a faceless "community" with no service-level obligations, is now a rather mature market space for those companies that sell Linux and other open source products.

Linux and open source have even penetrated the walls of the Windows fortress that is Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., campus. Bill Hilf, Microsoft's director of platform technology strategy, led a session that provided a look inside the Linux/Open Source Software Lab at Microsoft. With more than 300 server and client systems running dozens of operating system versions and distributions, Hilf described his work environment as "way more mixed than any sane person would have."

The mission of Hilf's tech team is to study open source technology strategy and make their lab the center of competency for Linux and open source inside Microsoft. Their findings keep Redmond's other engineers abreast of what's happening in the open source world. "My job is not to exterminate the penguin," he assured the audience.

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