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Addressing the State of the Linux Union

Linux is often thought to be all about collaboration and contribution to a project. Yet the community doesn't always get along, even as Linux's supporters are enjoying new levels of success against entrenched proprietary vendors like Microsoft.

To assess where Linux is today, to help hammer out some of the divisive issues in the community, and to sort through Linux's own complex relationship with vendors like Microsoft, the Linux Foundation is hosting the invitation-only Linux Collaboration Summit in San Francisco. At the event, which begins today, the state of the Linux union -- and the community's take on collaboration, contribution and competition -- will be on the table for discussion.

Solving these issues is becoming increasingly critical as the Linux community enjoys unprecedented prominence in the enterprise, as well as the prospect of continued growth. Recent research from IDC found that Linux is poised to gain during the current economic downturn, a prediction that Linux vendor Red Hat is already bearing out with its latest financial results.

"Linux remains in a two-horse race with Windows, but we're finding Linux growing at two to three times the rate of Windows," Jim Zemlin, the Linux Foundation's executive director, told InternetNews.com. "We see this growth happening as a result of three main factors: the economy, mobile computing and cloud computing."

The State of the Linux Union

During this week's summit, Zemlin will deliver the keynote address titled, "The State of the Linux Union," a key theme of which will be the economy and the role that Linux can play in it. And despite its moments of discord, Zemlin said the Linux community still has much to crow about -- and much to look forward to.

"In tough times, Linux provides better value for the price, period. History tells us this: Linux' most pivotal growth point to date was during the 2001-2002 downturn," he said. "And, with the increasing use of virtualization to cut costs, Linux is naturally positioned to provide real value to users during the downturn and beyond."

Zemlin also said other trends were favoring Linux's growth. He argued that mobile equipment manufacturers need more attractive margins, faster time to market, custom branding and the support for multiple chipsets -- all items that Linux can deliver, he said.

Surging interest in cloud computing, which Zemlin said he believes is the most economical way to deliver and access software, also stands to help Linux grow. Zemlin said Linux is already the fundamental component in the vast majority of cloud infrastructure and will benefit from its ongoing adoption.

What makes a contribution?

But along with the growth of Linux, there's also been a surge in disagreements over some of the fundamental ways the community operates.

At last year's collaboration summit, Linux kernel contributor and Novell staffer Greg Kroah-Hartman accused Ubuntu of not having contributed enough to the Linux kernel -- a claim that the Ubuntu Linux distribution and lead commercial sponsor Canonical have refuted.

Part of the issue comes down to what actually constitutes a contribution. It's a topic that the Collaboration Summit will address this year in a panel moderated by another Novell staffer, Joe Brockmeier, who is the community manager for the openSUSE Linux distro. Brockmeier will be joined by spokespersons from Red Hat Fedora and from Ubuntu.

Brockmeier told InternetNews.com that after last year's talk by Kroah-Hartman, there was a need to have a follow-up discussion about contributions and have a number of voices talking about what constitutes a contribution.

"I think it will help clear the air about the topic," Brockmeier said. "I think it's a good idea to discuss what responsibilities companies have in terms of contributions. Does having a kernel engineer on staff count as contribution? Or does it count as a contribution simply repackaging software and distributing it?"

Why can't we all just get along?

As if that's not enough, Linux's stakeholders are also having to weigh an increasingly complex relationship with proprietary vendors like Microsoft.

One of the key panel discussions taking place at the summit is one that will include a discussion about whether Linux, Sun and Microsoft can all get along.

Making an appearance to plead Microsoft's case will be Sam Ramji, who has been active courting the open source community lately, arguing that Microsoft is open to open source software.

Though Ramji has been conciliatory to open source, the issue of patents, and Microsoft's patent in particular, are bound to be a divisive issue -- especially in light of the company's recent case against navigation vendor TomTom.

"Patents are an unfortunate element of the software business, and until that is not the case, Microsoft will use them to spread FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] when they feel threatened," Zemlin said. "Their recent moves to publicize a patent suit illustrate how threatened they feel today: They use old tactics to both build software and to fight the competition on the marketing front. Time to retire both methods. "

But Ramji has painted quite a different picture. He told InternetNews.com last month that he feels that Microsoft has been very forthcoming in "demonstrating a consistent and rational process for open source adoption of Microsoft technologies and interoperability with non-Microsoft platforms."

High stakes for the Foundation

The Linux Foundation has a central interest in helping the community sort out such differences, itself becoming increasingly active with new efforts to help grow adoption of the OS. It recently acquired Linux.com as a new online location to promote and educate on Linux topics. It has also been active with its Linux Developer Network (LDN), which is a platform and a community to help developers build Linux.

The Linux Foundation is also assuming an active role in the development of mobile Linux by taking over the Intel-founded Moblin effort.

"The role of the Linux Foundation continues to be to standardize, promote and protect Linux," Zemlin said. "By focusing on these three key goals, we can help advance the platform and make it a competitive force in the OS market. To this end, we provide a neutral forum for Linux stakeholders, which becomes a natural home for projects like Moblin."