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Threat of IP Entanglements Grows Alongside Open Source

Threat of IP Entanglements Grows Alongside Open Source

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.

Trespassing on Intellectual Property?

Despite the news of rapid Linux growth and adoption, some spied a dark cloud looming over the confab, in the form of software patents and the as-yet-unrealized threat that successful patent enforcements pose.

“Any open source project imposes infringements against tens of patents granted in the U.S. today. The point is those patents shouldn’t have been granted in the first place,” said Bruce Perens, SourceLabs vice president of developer relations and policy, during a “State of Open Source” press conference put on by Prentice Hall.

“A pernicious company still could shut this whole thing down in the United States and other countries,” the author and Linux/open source evangelist warned. “Companies must contact their congressmen and say ‘we have to protect this.'”

“Any open source project imposes infringements against tens of patents in the U.S. today.”?Bruce Perens, SourceLabs vice president

Others tried a more positive viewpoint. “If you listen to the naysayers, Linux has a legal sword hanging over it,” said Stuart Cohen, CEO of the Open Source Development Lab (OSDL), during a panel discussion titled “The Explosive Growth of Linux and Open Source: What Does It All Mean?” He tried to mollify the concern by citing that Linux prevailed against The SCO Group’s public assertions that Linux violated some of its copyrights.

Cohen announced the OSDL Patent Commons Project, which will serve as a central, publicly available repository, overseen by OSDL, where individuals and organizations can submit and pledge patents. Developers can then review the submitted patents to ensure they aren’t violating the IP rights of patent holders.

Some experts in the intellectual property arena are unabashed in their belief that software patents are an idea whose time is over. Many patents, they say, are at odds with the freedom to innovate but patent holders have the law on their side.

Eben Moglen, a professor of law and history of law at Columbia University who serves pro bono as General Counsel for the Free Software Foundation, echoed Perens. “We need badly patent reform throughout the world. Patent litigation poses more problems than any other problem businesses face,” he said during the Linux Growth panel.

In an effort to eliminate bad patents, avoid frivolous litigation, and protect the Free Software Foundation’s charter of free software use, Moglen founded the Free Software Law Center (SFLC). “The foundation that the Free Software Foundation built for freedom needs scaling up,” explained Moglen, who defends programmers against patent lawsuits and claims brilliant minds among his clientele?”I’ve received more unsolicited e-mail from geniuses than just about anybody except maybe the admissions office at Harvard.”

“We need badly patent reform throughout the world.”?Eben Moglen, General Counsel for the Free Software Foundation

The SFLC is a law school that teaches young lawyers to take up the cause of free software development against patent litigation.

As holder of the most software patents in the world, IBM would seem the ideal villain in this freedom-vs.-IP owners debate, but Big Blue, having been an avid proponent of Linux growth for several years, seems in an unlikely position to enforce them; a legal attack would scare off potential adopters (read: customers) and would be at odds with the company’s current strategy.

With its contributions to and backing of open source projects Apache Derby (Java relational database), Geronimo (J2EE application server), and Harmony (J2SE 5 implementation), IBM is focusing on “how do we encourage growth for IT at large,” according to Senior Vice President of IBM’s Software Group Steve Mills. “A community is growing around these offerings to bring a vitality that leads to new functionality, new solutions,” he said.

Mills explained that IBM hopes these innovations move the industry forward and encourage adoption. With an open source revenue model that offers paid services for free products (“combining ‘free’ and ‘fee'”), Mills said, “it’s evident, across things that IBM is doing, that combinations of open source and traditional commercial products can coexist.”

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