New Group Tackles Linux Compatibility

The newly formed Free Standards Group (FSG) will strive to assure binary compatibility of Linux applications running on different distributions of the operating system. It's a quixotic goal at best, some critics say.

Despite dire predictions, Linux hasn't splintered in the same way as Unix. But that doesn't mean applications will run on any version, or distribution, of the operating system. "I've had some troubles," said Gene Christian, technical operations manager at Goldsmith's Inc. in Wichita, Kansas. His company has standardized on Red Hat Inc. Linux, but, says Christian, getting the same applications to run on other distributions, such as those from SuSE Linux AG, isn't always easy.

Common problems include files stored in different directories or incompatible versions of key code libraries. "You can usually get it to work if you take your time to do it. But people who are new to Linux often can't," Christian said.

Compatibility Crusade

Dan Quinlan, a software engineer at Santa Clara, California-based Transmeta Corp. and chairman of the FSG, said the group will address such compatibility issues, creating a way for developers and users to guarantee that a compliant application will run on an FSG-blessed operating system. The group combines two existing informal organizations, the Linux Standard Base project and the Linux Internationalization Initiative.

The FSG's first task is to deliver a public draft of the Linux Standard Base (LSB). LSB 1.0 will ensure that compliant applications run on any Linux distribution that supports the standard, Quinlan said.

Most major Linux players have pledged to back FSG, including Red Hat, Caldera Systems Inc., SuSE, Corel Corp. and TurboLinux Inc., as well as software vendors such as SAP AG and IBM Corp.

Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Massachusetts, said, "If this means that [FSG's supporters] will comply with the standards promulgated by the group, the majority of Linux software will automatically follow the standards."

But that's still a big "if." Michael Tiemann, chief technology officer at Durham, North Carolina-based Red Hat, said the ultimate goal of the FSG - to guarantee compatibility between compliant applications and operating systems - is unattainable. He said that despite the LSB specifications and test suite, version differences will linger, and developers will still need to test applications with every Linux distribution, undermining LSB's purpose.

Developers will concentrate on testing for the distributions most common in their target market, according to Tiemann.

"If we don't do a good job, we'll be ignored," Quinlan acknowledged.

Christian, for one, said he hopes the FSG will succeed. "I believe this is what the industry needs," he said.

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