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Alex Banh, CEO, Sun Wah Linux

Alex BanhWith its booming economy and massive population, China is set to become a global powerhouse in the IT world. Linux is likely to play a significant role in China's computing present and future, with numerous players both foreign (Novell, Red Hat) and local (Red Flag, Asianux) grabbing for a piece of the pie. The current leader is anyone's guess.

Homegrown Linux vendor Sun Wah is one of those vendors hoping to cash in on China's IT boom, with about 150 people spanning five offices in the country. Last week it announced the first Debian-based enterprise Linux distribution in China, and it is a founding member of the recently announced Debian Common Core Alliance (DCCA).

Leading Sun Wah's Linux charge in China is CEO Alex Banh. Internetnews.com recently chatted with Banh about Sun Wah's past, its present, its relationship with Red Hat and Debian, as well as the outlook for Linux in China.

Q: How did Sun Wah Linux get its start?

We were funded by Hong Kong-based Sun Wah Hi-Tech Group, which was also an investor in China's Red Flag Linux. Sun Wah Linux started at about the same time as Red Flag. At the very early stage, it was clear that Red Flag was to be a product company, and Sun Wah was to be a service company.

One of the very first partners that Sun Wah worked with was Linuxcare (now Levanta). We learned about the business model that Linuxcare had. We tried to work with Red Flag's Linux product. The very first Red Flag release was a desktop product in 2001-2002, and at that time Linux was just not ready for the desktop. We were having a lot of difficulties selling services around that product. We spent a lot of time and effort working with communities, specifically the Free Standards Group.

So we became an expert on localization and we were doing consulting jobs for the Hong Kong government when they were considering a switch from Windows to Linux.

Q: What did you do for the Hong Kong government?

Chinese characters are a very strange standard in the computing industry. In China they use GB coding for simplified Chinese. In Taiwan they use Big5 coding, which is published by an industrial consortium. In Hong Kong before 1997 it was managed by the British, so we used the ISO system. So there are two character sets with three different types of coding.

After 1997, Hong Kong had to manage a system that took in three different codings; at that time Linux was not able to do that and we introduced some new technology and we developed tools for the Hong Kong government.

The government requested the tools to work with four different distributions namely Red Hat, SUSE, Mandrake and Debian. We ended up having to build our own distribution for the Hong Kong government for their trial case. Then our chairman basically said since we've already done so much work why not just release a product based on our own technology.

Q: What was the base of your first distribution?

We released our first desktop distribution based on Red Hat Linux 7.0 and the name was Sun Wah Linux 3.0. At the same time we moved our development from Hong Kong to China.

Q: Why did you switch from Red Hat to Debian as a base for distribution? Does a Debian-based distribution have a better chance at success in Asia than one based on a commercial distro like Red Hat?

For a technology company it is really simple. For us to make the switch from a commercial base from Red Hat to Debian. No matter what when a project is sponsored by a company we always felt that there was a glass ceiling that we could not break through. No matter what we do, no matter how much we promote or work on that project. If a dispute comes the commercial sponsor may not go in the same direction that we want.

The reason we decided to work on Debian is it gives us a bar that we need to reach for, as it is hard to get software together and release it under the GPL. That means the piece of software is good if the community accepts it. We don't feel that we are held back by any glass ceiling; it's simply about how good we are.

That's one of the reasons why we made the switch from Red Hat to Debian. We don't want to have any invisible ties that tie our hands together behind our back.

More importantly, Debian is a great platform. If you look at Debian it doesn't include any non-free software, and that's where a commercial company like Sun Wah can come in and offer services making it easier for the user.

Q: Sun-Wah has repeatedly stated that its goal is to be the No. 1 Asian Linux distributor by 2006? How do you plan on making that happen?

Miracle Linux shipped about 10,000 copies of their server last year only in Japan. We are planning on shipping 10,000 copies of our server by the end of this year. I don't really know what TurboLinux is shipping -- they're doing a lot of integration jobs. Desktop-wise, if we combine the desktop and the server, there is no doubt we will be in the 150,000 to 160,000 range by Q2 of next year.

There are a lot of projects that we are working on in China that are very exciting. Our chairman set the goal for us we don't only want to be the leading distribution in China, we want to be the leading distribution in the whole of the Asia-Pacific region. And we are doing that with the help of a lot of local partners across Asia.

Q: Are you optimistic about Linux in Asia? Can in become the leading operating system in China?

We think that Linux will be a strong contender. While China is moving up in the world, a lot of Chinese companies are seeing that information technology can increase their competitiveness in terms of business decisions and allow them to compete with companies around the world. We will see a lot of growth in the computing sector. I think that Linux will be the preferable choice for the [small- to medium-sized business].