Corporate users follow Mono project

Running .Net apps on Linux has appeal, but Novell faces obstacles

Plenty of corporate developers watched with great interest when Novell Inc. unveiled a road map for the open-source Mono project that it acquired with Ximian Inc.

That's because Mono could give them a chance to run Microsoft Corp.'s .Net-based applications on Linux or Unix. Launched in 2001, the Mono project is an open-source version of Microsoft's .Net Framework, which includes a runtime for the Common Language Infrastructure, a C# compiler and a set of class libraries. Version 1.0 is due in the second quarter of 2004.

"It's definitely on our emerging-technology radar. We're monitoring it," said Sean Wheeler, director of enterprise technology strategy and planning at The Allstate Corp., a Northbrook, Ill.-based insurer with many .Net-based applications that now runs Linux only for research purposes. "Obviously, if you can run it on Linux, there's potentially large cost savings there."

However, corporate developers are following Mono with some trepidation. Several expressed concern about Novell's spotty track record with acquisitions, the developer community's uphill climb in keeping pace with changes to .Net and Microsoft's potential to derail the Mono project.

"Mono is open-source, but Microsoft would step forward and kill it if there was any real threat to their business model," said Ethan Roberts, a development architect at General Casualty Insurance Company of Wisconsin in Sun Prairie. "Microsoft is under siege from the whole idea of Linux, so why wouldn't they try to derail Mono's success?"

Microsoft refused repeated requests for comment about its position on Mono, saying only that it has worked with partners to standardize parts of the .Net Framework via the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) and the International Standards Organization.

No matter what Microsoft's current position is, Miguel de Icaza, chief technology officer for Novell's Ximian division, is well aware that customers have worries in the wake of The SCO Group Inc.'s lawsuit against IBM.

De Icaza said Mono developers have been very careful about integrating code from third parties. For example, he said, Microsoft wanted Mono developers to use Rotor, Microsoft's free shared-source implementation of its Common Language Runtime platform, which includes source code for C# and JScript compilers as well as for the Common Language Infrastructure.

"We have a rule: If you look at Rotor, you cannot contribute to Mono. It's as easy as that," de Icaza said, adding that his group recognized the need to be on solid legal footing with its work. When a large code contribution arrives, a third party reviews the changes to make sure it didn't come from Rotor, he said.

The greater challenge facing Mono will be catching up with the APIs Microsoft plans to add with the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, around 2006, said de Icaza. He said the community will need to rally more developers to get involved. Currently, 15 Novell employees and about 150 open-source community members work on Mono, he said.

But some corporate users said they aren't sure they will consider using Mono unless the community can keep up. Walt Smith, chief architect at a large U.S.-based financial institution, said his company will consider the .Net development environment once it matures in three to five years, particularly in the area of Web services security. It will also consider Mono to run the applications on Linux -- but only if that technology also matures, he said. "To remain relevant, Mono will need to incorporate these new security features and a vast array of other .Net features as they appear," he said. "That in itself poses a considerable challenge for Novell/Ximian."

Smith and some other corporate IT managers said Novell's purchase of Ximian won't necessarily lend any additional credibility to its work. Andre Mendes, chief technology integration officer at Public Broadcasting Service in Alexandria, Va., said he's interested in Mono and Novell brings some degree of revenue and cash flow. But he added, "Quite honestly, Novell is one of those companies I could never figure out. They lost the competitive advantage they had in the marketplace."

"I would really like to see Novell become a legitimate player in this space, but it's really up to Novell," said General Casualty's Roberts. "One thing that Novell seems to be good at is killing some solid technology."

De Icaza said there are areas where Novell has been helpful, such as directory services, which Mono wasn't going to have until Novell employees volunteered to add them.

Novell Vice Chairman Chris Stone said through a spokesman that the company fully supports the Mono project and is even considering providing the Mono environment on NetWare so .Net applications will also be able to run on that operating system.

But some corporate users said they don't think they will be running their .Net applications on operating systems other than Windows. "I doubt many of them will switch because of this," said one developer who works for a government agency.

"In reality, I don't think we'll need it," said Richard Eber, director of development services at Hawaiian Electric Co., which has substantial investments in Microsoft technology. He said that even though his company may add some Unix systems in the future, those will be for running Java-based applications.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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