Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Linux Breaks Apart Under the Open Source Model

I first worked with Linux back in the mid-90s. At the time there was only one real distribution, the Slackware distro, and it was a serious chore to install. It required manual configuration that was much more difficult than your average UNIX box let alone Windows or DOS.

Back then, as we experimented with Linux, one thing became abundantly clear - it was a one size fits all approach and that didn't work. The truth is, operating systems variations proliferate because different missions have different needs. A server OS is different than a desktop OS. A secure server is a totally different animal altogether. The requirements of multimedia development, programming, and games all vary widely. Linux in the old days really wasn't designed for that.

To be fair, Linux was (and technically still is) just the kernel. Diversity tended to be across operating systems then instead of within them. Desktop applications? Windows. Server applications? UNIX and maybe Windows NT. File server? Windows NT and Novell for the die hards. Multimedia and graphics? No question about it, go Mac.

This is in sharp contrast to the OS world of today. Starting with fragmentation of UNIX in the 1980's, we now experience so many variants of operating systems, that the mind boggles. The latest list of Vista variations shows six different types and that doesn't include the Microsoft server operating systems or versions of Windows for embedded and mobile applications. Windows Server 2003 also has a bunch of variations, such as the Storage Server, and Longhorn is expected to be completely modular. Just trying to figure out which future Windows to use makes my head hurt.

It should then come as no surprise that the once unified Linux now ships in more distributions (a fancy word for versions) then there are mints in a Altoids tin. The Distrowatch website lists a top 100 distributions. That implies that there are more than 100 hundred distributions! I can believe it. There actually are hundreds of distributions. While many are simply different packaging, most are specialized distributions aimed at increasingly narrow markets. Talk about slicing the baloney thin. There are special multimedia distros like Gen Too, desktop-oriented ones like Ubuntu, server versions like Red Hat Enterprise, and many more. Some are designed for lower end machines, such as Damn Small Linux, and a few, like Slackware, seem to be heirloom distributions. More to the point, there are dozens of entries in each category, even relatively narrow ones like embedded real-time operating systems.

Ultimately, this is a ying-yang situation. While being able to find an operating system variant that suits a very narrow need is attractive, supporting that many operating systems drains resources away from the core system. It is also pretty confusing. Just trying to compare this many versions of an OS can be daunting. It's no wonder that only a small number of distributions make up the majority of installations with a few additional ones staking our majority claims only in special niches.

Altogether, this is what happens with open source. Everyone wants their own flavor or feels like tinkering with it. Before you know it, variations proliferate like zebra mussels. Even fairly obscure new technology like VoIP fractures quickly under the open source model. There are lots of SIP servers out there and a bunch of variations on one implementation called Asterix. Great stuff but there's no control.

It is clear that there should be variations on the Linux theme but a limited number. One for servers, one for desktop, one for embedded, etc. The very nature of the Linux and open source world makes this unlikely. Unfortunately, the proliferation of Linux distros will weight down on Linux, hurting it in the long term.

The fracturing of the Linux world into hundreds of variations is a side effect of the open source movement. In the end one of two things will happen. Either most of these distributions will fade away as the programmers get bored with it or Linux will eventually fail altogether, paving the way for more years of the Windows hegemony. I wonder if Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer are sitting down with a glass of champagne right now toasting Linux.

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