Like most business partners, the organizations that make up the UnitedLinux initiative—SuSE Linux, Turbolinux, Conectiva, and The SCO Group (formerly Caldera)—are hoping that their combined efforts will bear more fruit and bring in more customers than attempting to go it alone. Keep in mind that these four partners are still separate businesses with their own Linux distributions and pricing structures. Their partnership consists of the sharing of ideas and the development of a common core operating system upon which they can add their own enhancements. It’s an intriguing prospect with the potential for a positive reaction from business users of Linux software, who have long been dealing with multiple distributions and the headaches that can come from working with different platforms.
The thrust of UnitedLinux
An impressive and potentially profitable undertaking, UnitedLinux seeks to take the chaos and pain out of developing software for multiple Linux distributions. However, noticeably absent from the group is Linux distribution leader Red Hat, which said that support for Red Hat Advanced Server is already sufficient. Red Hat currently enjoys an excellent market position in comparison to the four founding members of UnitedLinux.
Also missing from the fold is Mandrake, widely considered one of the most, if not the most, popular desktop Linux distribution. The missing Mandrake makes some sense because UnitedLinux is aimed at servers. But without current market leader Red Hat, UnitedLinux may have a hard time making inroads into some markets.
Are the benefits good?
UnitedLinux provides a common platform on which developers can base their products. Although most Linux distributions make use of a common kernel, significant patches and enhancements are generally made to the kernel by each distribution, which can make the process of developing software that will work across various Linux distributions very difficult. With UnitedLinux offering the possibility of wrapping up four major Linux distributions under the auspices of a common core, development for this platform and for Linux in general becomes much easier. Now, instead of developing for and testing on six distributions (Red Hat, Mandrake, and the four UnitedLinux partners), developers essentially need to worry about only three.
Both UnitedLinux 1.0 and Red Hat 8 comply with the requirements of the Linux Standard Base (LSB) 1.2. The LSB defines a set of interface standards that allows for portability of applications across open source platforms. The LSB helps address the need for a common core system infrastructure to aid in development and porting of applications between distributions. This could further ease the difficulty of development across Linux distros.
How does it compare?
Because of its market and mind share, Red Hat is the leading competitor to the UnitedLinux effort, especially in the U.S. market. Red Hat was invited to take part in the UnitedLinux effort, but politely declined for a very good reason: Red Hat has an excellent, well-supported solution already in place: the Red Hat Linux Advanced Server 2.1.
Since the release of UnitedLinux 1.0, SuSE and SCO were the first of the partners to release their own UnitedLinux-based offerings, called SuSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) 8 and the SCO Linux 4.0 Server, respectively. The UnitedLinux/SuSE/SCO offerings come with the 2.4.19 version of the Linux kernel, while Red Hat’s currently includes 2.4.9. Significant enhancements, many related to security, have been made in the kernel releases between .9 and .19.
In the area of pricing, each vendor has its own model. SLES 8 costs $749 for a single-server license; Red Hat Linux Advanced Server Base is available for $799; and the SCO Linux 4.0 Server Base offering can be purchased for $599 but includes no bundled support.
Maintenance and support costs vary widely depending on the vendor and specific software edition that is purchased. For example, while SLES costs $749 for the software, adding a technical support contract can cost up to $2,200 per server per year. All editions include software maintenance for a period of time to deal with bug fixes and updates.
From a purely technical standpoint, developers will likely have an easier time working with the partners in the UnitedLinux effort if they are interested in supporting a large number of distributions. All four vendors will be making use of the same core interfaces, components, and kernels, which will make development for these distributions much easier than for others that differ slightly here and there. It is doubtful, however, that UnitedLinux poses a major threat to the dominance that Red Hat currently has in the Linux market.
Worldwide, Red Hat is a major player, and especially so in the United States, where the words “Red Hat” are almost synonymous with the word “Linux.” Red Hat benefits from a market share that is larger than that of all four UnitedLinux participants combined. In fact, many hardware vendors, including HP and IBM, have stated that even though they will support the UnitedLinux effort, they won't be leaving Red Hat behind.
That said, it is good to have a choice. This is one of the tenets of the Linux and open source communities. UnitedLinux may not have the market force to derail Red Hat, but this is definitely a significant step toward finding a balance between preventing the fragmentation of Linux, on the one hand, and allowing one company to dominate it, on the other. UnitedLinux will also ease development efforts and help provide more of a polished, corporate image for Linux, which will make it even more mainstream, rather than being viewed simply as an “alternative” solution.