VA Linux CEO Opens Up on OS Future

SAN JOSE, CALIF. (08/17/2000) - With the momentum building gradually behind the Linux operating system, VA Linux Systems Inc. is one of a growing number of open-source vendors giving the folks at Microsoft Corp. something to think about at night.

VA Linux has emerged as an early leader in providing Intel Corp.-based servers installed with Linux, and hopes to expand that business to include more service and support offerings. Heavyweights like Dell Computer Corp. and IBM Corp., meanwhile, have jumped on the Linux bandwagon, adding credibility to the open-source model, but, at the same time, adding new competition for VA Linux.

IDG News Service caught up with Larry Augustin, VA Linux's president and chief executive officer, at the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo here this week. He talked about selling Linux to businesses, Linux on the desktop, the challenge to Microsoft and, of course, VA Linux itself.

IDGNS: How has LinuxWorld changed since this time last year, in terms of the people attending the show and the products being announced here?

Augustin: It's just gotten bigger; there's more consistent support across the industry. There were something like 50 companies that wanted to get into the show and couldn't, that tells you the level of interest. There are the big names out on the floor... but there's also the startup activity, and I think that's a big contrast to some of the Windows shows. People get a bit scared around Microsoft. If you're a software company, there's always a fear that Microsoft's going to come along and do the same thing. Here, there's lots of new companies getting started, and I think that bodes well for the future.

IDGNS: Do you see a shift in focus in terms of the way Linux is being used?

Augustin: Well, there's a big desktop push happening here, particularly with GNOME and Eazel (Inc.). There's also a strong focus on ease of management. One of the big features of Eazel is desktop management, and we're seeing that same emphasis on the server side. VA Linux is showing our build-to-order software program, Caldera (Systems Inc.) has Cosmos. So there's a lot of effort to make the IT manager's life easier, whether it's on the desktop or the server.

IDGNS: I've seen virtually nothing of Linux creator Linus Torvalds here this week, apart from a very brief appearance Tuesday. Was a conscious decision made to play down his role at the show this year?

Augustin: No, no. Linus comes and goes when he wants, but he's been around.

Linus doesn't like doing speeches. He told me he was so happy Monday night, he slept perfectly fine because he didn't have to write a speech for a keynote on Tuesday. He clearly has made a conscious decision to give fewer speeches, it takes up too much of his time and he'd rather be doing technical work.

IDGNS: What are the major concerns raised by business customers when you approach them about buying Linux servers?

Augustin: If we go to a customer that is not a Linux user, the first thing they ask is, 'Are my applications available on Linux?' People don't want to buy an operating system fundamentally, they want to buy a solution, an application.

We've been successful in the Internet infrastructure area because the applications are available -- there's Oracle (Corp.), open-source applications like Apache. We don't even try to sell in the desktop market because the dominant applications are pieces like Microsoft Office, and I'm not sure that Linux today has the right applications to replace Microsoft Office. I think it will develop them.

IDGNS: Will such applications come from Microsoft or Sun Microsystems Inc. or from some other company?

Augustin: I don't know. If I were Microsoft, I'd be worried by not porting to Linux. In many ways, Microsoft isn't an operating systems company, it's an applications company. It's Office that drives sales.

IDGNS: If the U.S. government breaks Microsoft into two companies, presumably the applications half would have a lot more incentive to support Linux?

Augustin: Yes, a much greater incentive. Otherwise, you'd have an applications company that doesn't support the fastest-growing, up-and-coming platform -- Linux -- and that doesn't sound right.

IDGNS: You're a big proponent of Linux on the desktop. Do you see a time when people go into a store and ask for Linux instead of Microsoft, and how long will that take?

Augustin: It's the same question as around business, it's the applications.

Home users run (Intuit Inc.'s) Quicken, TurboTax, Microsoft Word, the latest game. They use those applications, and, until they're available for Linux, people won't turn to it in large numbers.

IDGNS: Isn't there an ease-of-use issue too?

Augustin: Ease of use comes up because the applications aren't there. People say it's hard to do this or that -- it's not because the operating system is bad, it's because the applications aren't there.

IDGNS: Why is success on the desktop important, is it just a symbolic victory over Microsoft?

Augustin: No, it's about mindshare. People remember what they see. If you only have Linux in the server room, people forget about it. If you run it on the desktop, people see it every day.

IDGNS: How much do you think the antitrust investigation of Microsoft has helped Linux in the past year? Would IBM and Dell be so closely aligned with Linux if Microsoft hadn't been sued by the U.S. government?

Augustin: I think people sense weakness in Microsoft. Obviously, the government's case is part of that. People are more likely to attack Microsoft now than they were a year ago -- whether it's hardware or software, they see Microsoft as having had its attention turned to the antitrust case, and that creates opportunities for other people.

IDGNS: Would Michael Dell have been standing on stage at LinuxWorld Tuesday if Microsoft wasn't in court?

Augustin: I think so. But it's a tough call.

IDGNS: You own the popular Linux.com Web site, as well as the Andover.Net portal, which links developers to most of the major open-source Web sites.

Critics have said that you're becoming an MSN (Microsoft Network) of open source. How do you answer the criticism that you're building up too much control in a community that traditionally has thrived without much leadership?

Augustin: People seem to think we control what goes on at those properties. We don't. We just provide a forum where people communicate, develop and discuss.

We provide the platform and they provide the content. So it's a little bit different than an MSN.

IDGNS: So you won't try to shape the content or impose any editorial control?

Augustin: No, because that goes exactly against the model -- we'd lose the readership and we'd lose the developers. With SourceForge, we'll look at whatever tools people need, we want Slashdot to be an open discussion forum, we want Freshmeat to announce everything in the world.

IDGNS: Even if it conflicts with your advertisers on the portal site?

Augustin: Even if it conflicts with the advertisers.

IDGNS: (Caldera CEO) Ransom Love Wednesday said we need a new Linux kernel because the current kernel doesn't scale well in the data center. What do you think about that?

Augustin: (Laughing) I think Ransom has another kernel that he recently acquired. His strategy is going to be that Linux is good for a certain scale of system, and then he will offer the SCO (Santa Cruz Operation Inc.) kernel, with all the normal Linux software around it, for another scale of system. To some degree, I see this happening in the industry.

At some point, the Linux kernel might become less important. Right now, we can plug in different parts around the kernel. At some point, to plug in different kernels should also be possible. As long as they have the same APIs (application programming interfaces), the same libraries and all the interfaces are the same, why not? I think we're a ways from that because there's so much work that has to go into a kernel.

IDGNS: The acquisition of SCO gives Caldera a slightly different agenda than the other Linux distributors. Will that lead to more rivalry between them, and what are the implications of that?

Augustin: I don't think there's more rivalry. It may just be that they're more open about it. The slightly worrisome thing about the Caldera thing with SCO is that if the code really is different, if you have a SCO kernel and a Linux kernel, then you would have to start worrying about porting (applications) multiple times and that would be a step back.

IDGNS: There's been talk here this week about the need for a Linux Standards Base (a set of "rules" that would keep the various versions of Linux compatible, the first version of which is due early next year). How urgent is the need for that?

Augustin: It's very urgent. ISVs (independent software vendors) must be able to port to Linux, and that should mean one set of validation tests.

IDGNS: How much do applications have to be changed today to run across each Linux environment?

Augustin: It's actually not a lot. In some ways, the tweaking for different platforms is overstated by Linux's detractors. The differences between platforms are things like the files belong in different places, the style of layout is different. We're not talking deep technical differences because they're all using the same kernel.

IDGNS: Most people think of VA Linux as purely a hardware company, but you seem to be pushing more into services and support offerings. Why is that important for you?

Augustin: Our core skills have always been around Linux and open source. One of the ways we deliver that has been by delivering systems. Our core competency isn't really in hardware design, it's in software systems, so delivering that expertise through services is a reasonable extension. If you look at the efforts we're engaged in -- the Open Source Development Network, our system sales on the Internet, our professional services -- they are all tied around that "we're the Linux experts" idea.

IDGNS: What proportion of your revenue comes from services today, and how do you expect that to change?

Augustin: In the last quarter, 96 percent came from system sales and 4 percent from professional services. Long term, we see 75 percent from system sales, 10 to 15 percent from professional services and 10 to 15 percent from Internet properties, through sponsorships, advertising, media, and technology partnerships.

VA Linux Systems, in Sunnyvale, California, is at +1-408-542-8600, or at http://www.valinux.com.

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