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Linux On Wall Street Is Not An Oxymoron. Or Is It?

NEW YORK -- The Linux on Wall Street conference in New York is an attempt to highlight Linux and open source vendors and solutions, demonstrating and pontificating on how they all can work together.

But can they work together?

Can Wall St., the metaphorical home of Western capitalism and competitive free-market economics, in fact be sympathetic to open source software, which, in some respects, is the philosophical opposite?

It all depends on whom you ask.

Red Hat had a very prominent role at the conference, kicking off the morning keynote and commanding the entrance to the main auditorium with its booth.

More so than any other pure open source company, Red Hat is the prime example of how Linux and Wall St. can get along. The Red Hat booth staff was all business sales types and aggressively engaged booth traffic with a trader's zeal.

Though the underlying bits of Red Hat's software are all available for free, Red Hat has proven that it can make tens of millions of dollars by packaging and supporting open source software.

Red Hat wasn't the only Linux vendor at the event trying to prove that free and open source software can be both profitable and usable by Wall St. There were at least three other Linux distribution vendors at the event, including Novell, Xandros and Oracle.

The poor fellow who was manning the Xandros booth when I was there seemed quite lost unfortunately. When I asked him if the new Xandros release was based on the latest Debian Etch bits, he said he'd never heard of Debian. Interesting, since Xandros is based on Debian, which is a free, community-developed Linux distribution. The main pitch that I heard coming out of the Xandros booth was that Xandros makes it easier to migrate from Windows.

Nice. Competition is a good thing on the street and is a key part of free-market dynamics.

Novell's booth was active with staffers claiming they already had a real-time solution, while Red Hat is still just talking about one. Real time in Linux has the potential to dramatically improve response times for transactions, making Linux an even more attractive option for Wall St.

Faster trades at potentially less cost is another net positive for the street.

Then there is Oracle. Mighty Oracle with its display icon of a shielded penguin ready to do battle. The always-engaging Monica Kumar, senior director of open source product marketing at Oracle, was in the booth intermittently and gave out, with her cohorts, free demo disks of Oracle Unbreakable Linux. Their sales pitch: "We're binary compatible with Red Hat but we're cheaper."

Everyone wants a deal on Wall St.

Speaking of deals, Unisys's Anthony Gold, who is also on the board of directors at the Open Solutions Alliance, engaged a small group in a session where he trumpeted the size and power of the open source industry.

Gold also introduced Michael Wheeler, finance partner at UK investment dealer Redmayne Bentley, who provided a very articulate business case of how open source made financial sense for his firm.

The notion that open source is about getting something for nothing was also contested at the event.

In a session titled Enabling Innovation on Wall Street Through Open Source, one audience member accosted the panel by accusing open source of merely being a technology incubation scheme. Once the technology grows and matures there is someone there to charge you for it, the audience member said.

"How do you make money from open source?" Alexis Richardson, cofounder of open source financial services software vendor CohesiveFT, responded emphatically. "You ask people for money."

Charging for open source is the point, though, isn't it? If no one were making money from open source then it's not as likely it would be as welcome on Wall St.

As it turns out, there's plenty of money in open source. That said, open source isn't for everyone.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the whole event for me was the final panel in which the consensus appeared to be that, though Linux is widely regarded and accepted, that's not the case for all open source applications.

So is Linux on Wall Street an oxymoron? Of course it's not.

Linux has staunch supporters on the street who are making money with it and are recognizing the inherent benefits of the model. Linux, which is by definition free software, is not necessarily free without price or without the potential for profit.

Wall Street is all about money, and Linux has proven -- and will continue to prove -- that it is a worthy tool in the quest to generate even more money.

Sean Michael Kerner is senior editor of internetnews.com.