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. 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].

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