Linux makes the most of its Unix roots

As chairman and chief executive officer of Red Hat Software Inc., Robert
F. Young has seen the fledgling start-up grow in four years into the world’s leading
supplier of Linux operating systems.


Young has 20 years of experience in computer industry finance and marketing. After
graduating with honors from the University of Toronto, he headed two computer leasing
companies before he noticed the Linux user phenomenon in 1992.


The Linux kernel, invented early in this decade by Linus Torvalds and freely
downloadable from the Web at www.linuxhq.com, www.kernel.org and other sites, forms the
basis for Red Hat’s Linux server operating system, now at Version 6.0.


Young’s own Linux distribution and catalog business merged with Marc
Ewing’s startup in 1994 to form Red Hat Software of Research Triangle Park, N.C.


GCN chief technology editor Susan M. Menke interviewed Young by telephone from his
North Carolina office.


GCN: Why did you
pose for a photograph in the red hat?


YOUNG: The company was named after a red hat that belonged to Marc Ewing, our
co-founder and technical expert. I’m the sales and marketing co-founder. When Marc
was at college, he used to wear a red hat between classes at Carnegie Mellon University.
When he began building his first operating system, he named it after his old red hat.


A Linux operating system is put together in the same way as a car. You drive a Ford
Taurus or a Honda Accord. Very few people try to build their own cars out of all the
pieces.


In the operating system space, no one really uses a Linux OS. They use Red Hat Linux or
Slackware Linux [from Walnut Creek CD-ROM of Concord, Calif.] or Debian Linux [available
at www.debian.org]. Debian is probably the second-most popular version after Red
Hat’s.


GCN: What comes on the
Linux CD-ROM distributions, and what kind of support is included?


YOUNG: Red Hat takes about 570 different open-source technologies and packages that we
download from the Internet and engineer into a useful product. Some of the pieces we build
ourselves. The Linux kernel, the engine of our car, comes from Linus Torvalds and the team
of developers he works with over the Internet. We use the Apache Web server from
www.apache.org, the Gnu C and C++ compilers maintained by Sigma Solutions, and the X
Window System that came originally from the X Consortium of the largest Unix computer
companies—Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and the former
Digital Equipment Corp.


Most of this code comes from professional engineering teams that work in an open-source
model. Red Hat’s role is to assemble all the pieces into a useful product.


GCN: How large is it?


YOUNG: It comes on two CDs, effectively about 400M. The actual Red Hat OS is free,
open-source software you can download at no cost from our File Transfer Protocol site and
thousands of other FTP sites. Or you can buy it for $50 to $100.


Our supported version costs $995. The problem with the $50 version is that all you get
is the software. You’re on your own to implement it and keep it working. The $995
version comes with technical support to get it to do exactly what you need.


GCN: How much support does
that buy?


YOUNG: It’s a year’s worth of support per machine, although the number of
hours has a limit.


GCN: Which computer makers
are preinstalling your Linux now?


YOUNG: As Linux becomes popular in the commercial computing space at large companies
such as Southwestern Bell and Burlington Coat Factory, they have been going back to their
hardware suppliers and saying, “You give us good support when we use Santa Cruz
Operation Unix or IBM OS/2 or Microsoft Windows. But when we decide to use Linux,
we’re on our own. You sell us a box, but we have to install the Linux and support it.
We’ll buy our computers from you this year if you’ll take responsibility for the
Linux machines.”


This is what is causing IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Computer Corp. and Compaq
Computer Corp. and Silicon Graphics Inc. and all the others to start offering Linux.
It’s not because they have anything against Microsoft Corp. but purely because they
didn’t get to be big and successful by refusing to do what their customers ask.


GCN: On the software side,
I understand you are getting application ports from Computer Associates International
Inc., IBM, Informix Corp., Novell Inc., Oracle Corp., SAP America Inc. and Sybase Inc.


YOUNG: The list is much longer. Some of them bundle Linux with their software, and some
hardware suppliers also will supply turnkey systems. The attraction boils down to the fact
that the customers and the suppliers have control over the operating system they use.


If you buy a proprietary operating system, you have a limited number of things you can
do to it and with it. The beauty of Linux is that, if you are Compaq and your customers
want Linux and the SAP application server, you can bundle them as a turnkey solution. Or
if your customers want a bare-metal computer and the phone numbers for the software
vendors, you can give them that choice.


Companies like IBM are offering Red Hat Linux-capable machines to their resellers.
Users can be confident that either Windows or Linux will work on that hardware
configuration.


Dell in contrast offers a turnkey machine that comes preconfigured with Red Hat.


GCN: What is your
relationship with Caldera Inc. of Orem, Utah, and its competing build of Linux?


YOUNG: Given that Linux is open-source software, everyone can build their own versions.
If the marketplace prefers the Caldera version, the market can choose it instead of Red
Hat.


Having said that, we think of Caldera and the other Linux vendors as being allies in
creating a big marketplace of Linux users. If someone uses Caldera or the Debian
distribution, that is someone to whom Red Hat can sell products and services.


If the user has a bunch of Caldera machines and a bunch of Red Hat machines, we might
sell a service contract for all the machines. If the user wants a secure server on a
Caldera machine, we might sell our secure server. We could not sell those products and
services if the user has SCO Unix or Windows. In that sense, any other Linux company is an
ally.


GCN: Is all this going to
turn into a replay of the Unix wars, where Posix was well-intentioned but never
standardized things?


YOUNG: There’s a primary difference between Linux and Unix. Linux is a
reimplementation of Unix, but it doesn’t use any of the same code. It mimics the way
Unix does things, and it includes many Unix standards, including most of the Posix
specification.


The difference is in the licensing terms. Unix was proprietary, closed technology. When
you bought a copy from Sun Microsystems Inc. or SCO or HP or IBM, all you got were the
binaries—the ones and zeros—not the source code.


We ship both the source code and the binaries. The user has the right to modify them.
The general public license from the Free Software Foundation says that you can modify the
software however you want, but you can’t impose any further restrictions on anyone to
whom you give the software. 


The original Unix came from AT&T Corp. After AT&T licensed it to Sun and HP and
IBM and everyone else, all their various flavors of Unix started to move off in different
directions. Every now and again, the Unix industry would hold a big conference and
acknowledge that it was imposing a burden on users and suppliers, and they would try to
pull all the technology back together.


Literally the day after the conference ended, the whole process would start all over
again.


The difference with Linux is that it’s open-source software. If Red Hat wants to
make an innovation to the kernel, we can do so. If the innovation becomes popular in the
marketplace, all the other Linux builders are going to use it. We don’t own the
innovation any more than they do. And vice versa.


When I first got into Linux in 1992, I was convinced it was going to make the Unix
balkanization look like a big, happy family. In fact, the reverse has happened.


GCN: Linux runs on Intel,
Alpha and Sparc processors. What does Intel Corp. expect from its recent investment in Red
Hat? Is it hedging its bets on Windows 2000?


YOUNG: Neither we nor Intel intend to do anything bad to Microsoft or anyone else.
It’s purely an effort to offer the customers more choice. Intel recognizes there are
tens of millions of Linux users, most of whom have Intel computers. It wants to make sure
the key Linux suppliers are successful on that platform.  


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