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Celebrated freeware OS Linux grows up

October 2, 1998
Web posted at: 2:30 PM EDT

by Alex Lash

SAN JOSE, California (IDG) -- Linus Torvalds is a brand-new father. But his other baby is growing up fast.

The freely distributed Linux operating system he invented almost a decade ago as a University of Helsinki student has evolved from hacker hobby to corporate purchase decision. Oracle, Netscape and many others have announced software that runs on Linux, the Unix clone that can run on PCs.

As reported Friday, Intel, Netscape and two prominent venture capital firms - Benchmark Capital and Greylock - have taken minority stakes in Red Hat, a for-profit distributor of Linux that provides the documentation, customer support and tools that help users install and modify the highly-regarded Unix variant.

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Sitting on a panel here yesterday at the ISPCon trade show with the Red Hat CEO, his new investor friends, a local TV anchorwoman and a devoted crowd singing his praises, Torvalds certainly didn't mind the attention, nodding playfully at suggestions that he was approaching "God-like" status among developers.

No one would say how much the four investors actually invested, although Red Hat CEO Bob Young, sitting on Torvalds' left during the panel discussion, downplayed the financial significance.

"This round of financing is mostly strategic for us," he said. "The fact we collected a few dollars is a nice side benefit."

That "benefit" is to meant to give Red Hat the wherewithal to handle corporate customers who demand accountability and around-the-clock service as part of their purchase. Red Hat will build out a customer-service call center in coming months, but the plan to tackle the enterprise is still "in its infancy," according to Red Hat CTO Marc Ewing.

The ever-confident Torvalds told panel moderator Catherine Heenan, an anchorwoman for a San Francisco evening news program, that the sudden spotlight thrust on Linux was not surprising, given its technological merits and the fervor of its acolytes. But in corporate offices, Linux until recently has been considered a hobbyist's OS, not something to help run company networks.

"Nine months ago we wanted to help Linux move forward, but we had to move behind the scenes," said John Paul, Netscape's general manager of server technology. "I'm no longer nervous about talking to enterprise customers about Linux."

Not surprisingly, Intel VP Sean Maloney was less effusive. He repeatedly referred to Linux as one choice among many operating systems in the server space. But he batted down any suggestion that Intel's Red Hat investment was a warning to Microsoft, which wants to win corporate hearts and wallets with its NT operating system running on Intel-based server machines.

"NT has huge momentum [in enterprises]. How far will Linux move into that space?" Maloney asked. "I don't know."

Maloney warned of the danger of spreading Linux "too thin," instead of focusing on what it does best now: run small to medium-sized Internet servers. Torvalds, who keeps control of the Linux kernel, or core functionality, promised that the next version of Linux would run on servers with more than one processor, a big step up in computing power.

Open-source programs across the board - the Apache Web server, the Perl programming language and the GNU development tool set, to name a few - are gaining legitimacy as a business platform. Open-source development relies on a loose-knit federation of programmers who work to improve the software as a labor of love. The programs are available to all to use, manipulate, change and redistribute, without the proprietary interests that normally control software development. With most, you can't sell the code itself. But because the code is freely distributed, there are potentially millions of users who need additional tools, books and applications to enhance the software.

Earlier at the conference, Silicon Graphics gave the open-source community another nod of corporate approval by tapping C2Net as a partner in its Internet service strategy. Oakland, Calif.-based C2Net adds strong cryptography to the open-source Apache Web server and resells it.

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