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Linux Diffusion

So most of the front-line news this week came from Novell and its Brainshare conference, where the company rolled out SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 and talked about its timetable for version 11. Company head honcho Jack Messman also spoke with our colleagues at CRN about the company's plans for Linux and its relationships in the sales channel. SUSE 10 is obviously a big step for Novell as it battles for market share against Red Hat, not to mention Microsoft's Windows and the other systems that companies can use for a base server operating system.
But I have to confess that a little voice in my head lately has been wondering about the viability of commercial Linux. In some of the interviews I've done lately, and in looking at the results of one of our recent polls here on Linux preferences, I've been startled by the amount of attention being given to free Linux distributions -- Fedora Core, Debian, others -- at the enterprise level. I recently wrote about Qlusters, the company that's marketing an open source systems management package, and the folks there say that their #1 project for upgrading their product, QRM, is to extend it beyond commercial Linux to cover as many distributions as possible based on the feedback they received from customers. Another announcement this week about a Linux management package from Open Country also took pains to stress its applicability to most forms of Linux.

Linux, as with so many products of the open-source model, is maturing swiftly. That maturity is going to spread across the entire Linux ecosystem...and those non-commercial distributions are still going to be free--always one of the most powerful words in the language of business. Can Novell and Red Hat continue to distinguish their offerings from the Fedora Cores of the Linux world? Probably. They will continue to have that powerful channel access; the edge of tested, certified software that they guarantee can handle mission-critical business; the ability to offer support, which will be useful as Linux spreads into wider segments of enterprise business where Linux expertise may be less plentiful; and (not least) good, established reputations.

But the Linux world, by its very nature, is populated with people who like to hack the software to improve it and make it do what they want. Lots of server administrators like to play with the OS. If free distributions are reliable enough that they have the time to do that, and they can also go to their bosses and show a big fat zero on the budget line for software expenses, the plans of companies like Novell and Red Hat may be altered, and not to those companies' liking. I suspect those two firms in particular are going to have to spend the next few years thinking very hard about how they can add value over the free competition.