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Linux: The Software Gold Rush

By Alolita Sharma and Bob Adkins

Linux carries a similar promise for the global software community as the 1849 Gold Rush did for California. For software products and projects, Linux is software gold. When electroplated onto cheap, high-performance PCs, Linux offers all the appearance, performance, and function of the high-priced, real-gold offerings of the major vendors including Microsoft, Sun, IBM, and HP. And the analogy can be extended further. Just as the 1849 Gold Rush provided many expected and unexpected benefits to the State of California and even to the U.S. economy, Linux is poised to provide both expected as well as unexpected benefits to the software industry.

The 1849 Gold Rush promoted settlement of the State of California and provided discretionary cash at critical juncture in US history: funding art, educational, building, and other projects which would have been delayed by decades or never would have been accomplished at all.

Linux is already promoting the settlement of new software areas. Linux has provided the opportunity for many engineers to contribute to operating system kernel development, advanced networking, real-time scheduling, and super-computer design. The results have been an exciting array of high-quality, advanced software. Without the momentum offered by Linux, these areas would remain sparsely populated. Today there is a healthy collaborative community that has "settled" into and is growing and evolving in each of these areas.

Linux is capable of much more. In addition to enabling the settlement of new software areas, Linux provides a fertile seed as a kind of discretionary cash whose addition to the global software economy will fund advancements in the software technology and will broaden sources for commercial software. Linux "gold" can provide the extra resources needed to enable software projects that would otherwise be infeasible. This is especially important on a global basis. Today the world's software industry is dominated largely by U.S. companies. Commercial licensing and royalties feed the U. S. software hegemony and often stifle initiation of projects or products in developing countries.

Linux changes the rules.

Linux can provide an inexpensive yet strong foundation for large-scale projects which otherwise face a multiplier of licensing restrictions and fees. Even in the U. S., reduction of licensing fees multiplied over hundreds of equivalent machines was a major motivator for using Linux-based supercomputing to produce the special effects of the movie Titanic.

The combination of zero royalties and low hardware costs enable the prerequisite infrastructure of large projects to be built cost effectively. Furthermore, maintenance and upgrade costs can be controlled by the project more efficiently. While software evolution is more rapid under Linux than under commercial operating systems, each project nonetheless can select the upgrades and maintenance which are appropriate to its own specific requirements without arbitrary vendor upgrades and artificial external costs. Support cannot be withdrawn because a complete snapshot of the source code used for the project is always available.

For example, many large-scale projects exist which have been developed in the public domain but which are tied to a proprietary infrastructure. In one such case, the U.S. Weather Service has built a large, public domain source system for weather forecasting based upon Hewlett Packard's (HP) proprietary Unix operating system and compilers. The costs of implementing a national-scale forecasting system on high-priced HP equipment would be prohibitive to all but the wealthiest countries. However, with some effort, the entire code base could be converted to Linux and built using standard open compilers such as g++. Several template facilities might need to be reworked against the template limitations of g++, and data byte order assumptions embedded in some parts of the code must be resolved, but in theory such a conversion could be completed successfully. Then a top-rate automated weather tracking and early-warning system could be implemented wherever raw data could be obtained to feed the forecasting software. Although obtaining raw weather data is not trivial, literally hundreds of programmer-years worth of work on a world-class front-end weather system already has been provided. Once available under Linux, modern weather forecasting services could begin to become available to developing nations worldwide.

Product development also benefits from the same factors. Any number of commercial products can be built without the traditional dependencies on external licensing and support. The control of Linux-based software products can be fully vested in the project itself. Projects can be jump started with fewer legal and financial dependencies. New products can be built by virtually any source in the global development community and can compete on technical merit with few licensing constraints and no royalty encumbrances. Some examples might be a Linux version of the popular modem multiplexers such as Webramp, or Linux-based PDAs, office Intranet and file servers, etc. Linux is highly suited for building any software or firmware product that is service oriented and capable of being remotely, especially Web managed.

Products can be built:

But can product developers basing their work on GNU Public License (GPL) open source software such as Linux still protect their valuable intellectual property, their inventions? If they have incorporated GPL source software, then they typically must provide their own product's source code also. In some cases this will not be a problem. Where it is, then the developer should build their product using dynamic libraries if possible. If dynamic libraries are not sufficient, then alternative open source software, such as FreeBSD, could be used as a basis for their product. However, hoarding inventions contradicts the spirit as well as the many advantages of Linux and open source software. While fully adhering to open source practice, vendors such as Red Hat have implemented a business model that emphasizes other product differentiators including packaging, ease of use, configuration utilities, and service, etc. Large projects can greatly benefit from open source practice since they are normally sold based on expertise and long-term maintainability. When the complete project source code is available, the lifecycle stability of the entire project is enhanced.

The world's software industry has great intellectual talent. This wealth of talent is certainly in aggregate greater than any single company commands including Microsoft, IBM, Sun, HP, etc. But many software developers outside of the U. S. have been hampered by the steep cost of project startup and by the licensing restrictions that give ownership and control to others. Limited local opportunities further promote the "brain-drain" from developing countries to the U.S.

Linux helps solve these problems because ownership (copyright) of software is shared and typically does not require complex or onerous licensing arrangements. Equally importantly, project costs can be controlled so that they better reflect the actual costs without arbitrary expenses due to inflated infrastructure requirements or foreign license and royalty fees.

Linux is continually being adapted and revitalized and represents an ever more capable foundation to empower the world software development community. Linux is truly a renewable Gold rush.

Copyright © 1999, AuthorName
Published in Issue 37 of Linux Gazette, February 1999