'Choice in Linux distros is healthy' says Torvalds

One question on everybody’s mind when they are thinking about Linux and how it will fit into the enterprise mould is that of whether the number of known distributions — believed to have reached approximately 130 — is helping or hurting Linux. This week at “CA World” in Las Vegas, a handful of the Linux world’s most influential activists gave their viewpoints on that issue.

Juergen Geck, CTO of SuSE Linux AG, agreed that the question of whether Linux was likely to fragment, until there are 50 flavors of Linux like there were 20 to 30 flavors of Unix is a very common one.

“My take on the issue,” he said, “is that it won’t happen though because SuSE, for example, doesn’t own Linux, neither does Red Hat. Whereas Solaris exists because Sun Microsystems tries to produce a best of breed.”

“SuSE doesn’t benefit from deviating from 2.6,” he added. “And that’s true for all the different distro vendors.”

Jon ‘maddog’ Hall, one of the key luminaries who has helped Linux as an OS to the considerable heights it has already reached today, offered a slightly different perspective by drawing attention to the existence of LSB, the Linux Standard Base.

“With 150 different Linux distros all made from the same kernel and the same libraries, what’s needed if that you have to say which ones you are going to guarantee. So the Linux Standard Base was an attempt to create a standard for every single architecture."

It was in 1997 some of the member companies in Linux International, he explained, saw that type of a problem, the divergence of different distros. “So LI formed the Free Standards Group to create standards for each architecture and help binary compatability. It recognizes that there can be innovation underneath a particular standard.”

“The Linux Standard Base has done a very good job of specifying a standard that can then be innovated underneath of,” ‘maddog’ said. “It continues to grow and emerge, expanding the coverage, and as time goes on I hope that hardware will eventually say, for example ‘needs Intel LSB compatible 2.5 or higher’ on it.”

Linus Torvalds offered a refreshingly quirky take on the issue, maintaining the spirit of pioneering that has of course made Linux what it is.

“I am a huge believer in the idea that Linux competes within itself,” he said. “That keeps everyone honest.”

“A lot of these 130 distros are a little oddball,” he conceded. “Some are only used by Bob and his five friends. But that’s okay—because sometimes Bob did something right and his 5 friends become 50. Then five thousand, and so on.”

“Clearly 130 distros is not practical for a middleware vendor so in that sense what everyone does is just to ignore most of them, and end up with just a few things. Even with the top 2 or 3, mind you, folks working in the enterprise space find it confusing to have a choice.”

Torvalds concluded: “I always believe ultimately that we should think of it as being like politics. Choice in operating systems is kind of confusing, But it is better to have choice than not to have choice.”

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