Is Smolt the Key to Counting Linux Users?
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Linux users are not an easy bunch to profile or to count. Many Linux users download the operating system for free and never perform any kind of systems registration to enumerate their hardware.
That's where Smolt may be able to help fill the gap. Smolt is an open source hardware profiling technology that is already being used by Red Hat's Fedora and is set for inclusion in the upcoming Novell OpenSUSE 11.1 release.
Ubuntu is currently considering Smolt as well.
With Smolt Linux distribution might be able to get a better grip of what users are running and how many users they have. "Smolt is fairly accurate for where it is used, which is to say, at least today, primarily Fedora users," Ted Ts'o, Linux Foundation Fellow and chief platform strategist, told InternetNews.com.
"There are plenty of enterprise Linux users that won't use Smolt today, simply because it is not there, and if it was shipped with an enterprise Linux distribution, many enterprise Linux servers are behind firewalls, and thus would not be counted for Smolt," Ts'o added.
The Smolt effort began at Fedora back just prior to the Fedora 7 release as an opt-in profiling tool that lets Fedora know what hardware users have in addition to knowing the installed base number.
At the time, then-Fedora Project Leader Max Spevack noted that he had been in discussions with Novell about Smolt being included with OpenSUSE. Those discussions have now led to Smolt being part of the upcoming OpenSUSE 11.1 release.
"I just did an OpenSUSE beta 4 install today and sent my hardware profile up using smoltGui," Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier openSUSE Community Manager told InternetNews.com.
Novell's OpenSUSE isn't the only one that is looking at Smolt. Ubuntu Chief Technology Officer Matt Zimmerman told InternetNews.com that his developers have been in contact with Smolt developers.
"We're exploring ways we can collaborate to our mutual benefit," Zimmerman said. "We are not currently shipping Smolt in Ubuntu."
Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth, however, noted that Ubuntu has a tool that pre-dates Smolt and has been included in Ubuntu for some time. Shuttleworth claimed that Ubuntu already has a database of user hardware platforms running Ubuntu.
The idea of a large multi-distribution effort to improve hardware compatibility is one that is appealing to Red Hat's current Fedora Project Leader, Paul Frields.
"It's absolutely a good thing whenever distributions work together to improve the overall coverage of hardware in Linux," Frields told InternetNews.com. "I'm glad to hear Ubuntu is considering it as well, because Smolt is completely free and open source software, and offers an excellent way for Linux distros to see what hardware their users employ."
Smolt could also potentially be a tool for counting the total number of users for a given platform, though that's not its ideal use case. The Linux Foundation's Ts'o noted that Smolt probably wound not be that great for counting Linux users as a whole.
Fedora's Frields agreed, noting that Smolt is probably not as good for counting users as it is for counting proportional use of hardware across the user base.
"We prefer to count users with other methods, which we document on our wiki openly and transparently," Frields said.
One of the methods used by Fedora for counting users is by tracking IP addresses that hit it update servers. It's a method that isn't entirely accurate either for a number of reasons. One reason is that users could be behind firewalls and without unique IP addresses.
"This is one of the major challenges for Linux distros -- trying to estimate exactly how many people are using the distros," OpenSUSE's Brockmeier said. "You can get a sense of the user base, but actual hard numbers are not easy to come by."