Linuxcare Turns Up the Open Source Heat

SINGAPORE (08/18/2000) - As an organization that believes there is a dearth of support services for the Linux operating system and its related open source software, Linuxcare Inc.'s goal is to provide technical support, education, consulting, and benchmark services to companies which want to use Linux.

To get an insight into the company as well as the latest Linux developments, Computerworld (CW) recently spoke with David Sifry (DS), Linuxcare's chief technology officer and co-founder, as well as a prominent member and evangelist of the open source community.

CW: Open source lets people have the benefit of changing code to suit their needs, but is there a lot of demand to get their hands on the code?

DS: It depends on the type of user. For example, if the car industry worked the same way the proprietary software industry worked, you'd buy a car with the hood welded shut. That means if the car broke down, you'd have to go back to the dealer to fix your car. And then, it would be up to the dealer. He could ask you to buy a service pack to get it fixed, or wait until the next release of the car.

With open source software, you are getting a car with a hood that opens. That doesn't mean that every single person that drives needs to be a mechanic, but if you want to play with your car, you can. It also means that you can develop an entire industry of fleet mechanics, not necessarily the dealers, who will go out and fix your car for you.

Even more fundamental is that with open source software, you are obligated to give back any changes or improvements to the code to the community. So, if someone developed a new turbocharger that got a thousand kilometers to the liter, and ran faster, smarter, smoother, then everyone would be able to take advantage of that enhancement. That is a fundamental improvement to the old proprietary model.

CW: That flexibility seems to demand a change in mindset.

DS: Yes, but businesses are still looking for a trusted vendor that they can go to. It is good to have the freedom to change code, but a big company still wants someone to fall back on to call at three in the morning. It wants to have a service level agreement so that mission critical systems will not go down.

That's what Linuxcare provides. Linuxcare does for Linux in the services space what Sun does for Solaris, or IBM does for AIX, but because Linux is open and free, there is no point selling it. We don't sponsor, align, or do a distribution of Linux.

CW: What does Linuxcare provide?

DS: We provide four main types of services to enterprises which comprise the Global 1000, the large OEMs and ISVs, and the Internet infrastructure companies. All of these companies are using Linux and open source software throughout their companies in different ways, but they all need to have quality tech support, professional services -- figuring out strategy and implementing it, and education for their engineers and customers. Then of course, everything has to be certified and tested. Until Linuxcare, no company was providing those types of enterprise class services for open source software.

CW: Don't Linux distributions also offer similar services?

DS: Some of the Linux distribution houses even come to Linuxcare to do their service operations. It also comes to a focus on services. We don't focus on building distributions. There are other companies which do that very well and we don't see any reason to go there. Instead, we've found that many companies are looking for service on all sorts of Linux distributions and all the different hardware, and they want one vendor to turn to for a consistent level of service, be it professional services, tech support, or education.

CW: Is the trend to have more layers of open source than just the operating system?

DS: Yes, it is, but that is not to say every single piece of software has to be open source. I'm not one of those who says there is no room for proprietary software. I personally don't choose to create it, but I do respect the right of other people to do so. In the end, it should be the customer's choice as to what to use. Where I think that open source is going to be extremely popular and useful is in areas where it can act as a platform that unifies a number of industries.

For example, databases are going be the next significant area where open source packages are changing the landscape of major commercial vendors. Already, many Web sites use ISQL as their core database where previously they would have to pay Oracle or Informix or Sybase significant license fees to do so. That is not to say that those vendors don't have quality products. They do, and in many cases, are better than the open source products. But the amount of development that is occurring is making those differences smaller and smaller.

I think we will see a tremendous use of Linux and open source software in spaces like ERP where there is already a mature market, where it has already been defined like an operating system, database, or Web server. The use of open source software will tend to asphyxiate proprietary vendors in those commodity spaces.

What it lets people do is take back their computer and use it for what they want to use it for. No longer are you forced into an abusive co-dependent relationship with your vendor. With the source code, you can even do it yourself, or you can come to a company like Linuxcare and get us to do it for you.

CW: Will proprietary vendors become irrelevant?

DS: No, they have a tremendous amount of service to provide. Look at SAP, they are doing tremendous turnaround in the ERP space because they are switching over to more of an ASP model. What open source software makes painfully clear is that software is not a product. You don't make money from it in the same way you make selling cars. It is a service.

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