Linux Vendors Challenged

By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2003-12-15

Linux Vendors Challenged

Im an enterprise user of desktop Linux, but I dont use an enterprise Linux distribution. My home and office desktops are running Fedora, the so-called developer and enthusiast variant of Red Hat Linux.

See ExtremeTechs review of Fedora Core 1.

My distribution preference has less to do with being on the bleeding edge than with basic manageability—in particular, managing the installation and updating of software on my systems. The fact that others might share my preference could pose a problem for Red Hat and other enterprise Linux vendors.

Popular and freely available Linux distributions such as Debian and Fedora boast many more users than pay-per-machine, enterprise-oriented distributions. Popularity has its advantages. More users means more bug reports, mailing list queries, unofficial how-to documents and application software packages.

A common knock against desktop Linux is that the platform lacks the breadth of application software that Windows enjoys and that installing applications on Linux involves following arcane compilation processes and wrestling with missing software dependencies.

Theres a broad and ever-widening range of applications available for Linux, the installation and updating of which are quite easy to manage, as long as the software in question comes in packages compiled for your specific distribution.

Making ready-to-install packages out of open-source application releases is a large part of what Linux distributors do, but they dont build packages for every possible project. Supplementing the packages available from the vendor of a particular Linux distribution are those provided by free-software projects.

I had been looking for an RSS reader to use on Linux, and a little while ago I came across such an application, called Straw. I couldnt find Straw in any packaged form, and I ran into dependency troubles when I tried to install it from source. Recently, I found a repository project run by a person named Dag Wieër that compiles packages for Fedora, among them Straw, making installation and update maintenance much easier on me.

Having this sort of community support is a big advantage, but it hinges on popularity. I dont think a distribution that costs at least $179 per system per year, as Red Hat Enterprise Linux does, will ever be nearly as popular as a freely available distribution such as Fedora.

Next page: Are enterprise Linux distributions doomed?

Are enterprise Linux distributions


This doesnt mean enterprise Linux distributions are doomed; they do offer benefits and assurances that free distribution projects dont, including organized support, IHV and ISV certifications, training, and reliable network access to updates and fixes. However, the popularity gap, particularly as it applies to software package availability, may become a problem for enterprise Linux distributions.

One way to make enterprise Linux distributions more mainstream would be to make them freely available, with the option of paying for subscriptions. As long as vendors provide subscribers with services they want, paying customers will show up—starting with the ones who are paying for subscriptions right now.

It would help if vendors could provide a clear link between the number of subscriptions purchased and the amount of services received. Companies with larger numbers of subscriptions could have the bugs they file looked at more quickly and have their e-mail queries addressed more quickly.

Vendors could take a page from the Linux software company Transgaming, which lets subscribers vote on which Windows games Transgamings WineX will be made to support next. Subscribers to an enterprise Linux distribution could vote on which packages to include in future versions, which features to address and which bits of documentation to be written next, with the number of votes a company maintains tied to the number of subscriptions it pays for.

By tweaking the somewhat-rigid enterprise Linux strategy under which Red Hat Enterprise Linux and similar distributions are sold, vendors can make the most out of the open-source model, thereby building value for their products through popularity while giving customers more reasons to buy subscriptions.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at

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