Strength in Numbers?

A year ago, they were rivals, four companies each fighting for a tiny share of the Linux server market but not gaining much ground on U.S. market leader Red Hat Inc.

Then last May, the rivalry was replaced by a partnership called UnitedLinux, bringing the former competitors together to share technology, expertise and development costs as they worked to build a standardized, enterprise-ready Linux operating system to compete head-on with Red Hat's best.

How have the first 10 months shaped up for UnitedLinux partners SuSE Linux AG in Nuremberg, Germany; The SCO Group Inc. in Lindon, Utah; Turbolinux Inc. in Tokyo; and Conectiva SA in Curitiba, Brazil?

"I think they can be successful," says Bill Claybrook, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston. "UnitedLinux and Red Hat will share the U.S. market, which is a pretty large market. Each company, though, still has to be successful alone."

Claybrook says the partnership offers the companies economies of scale. "They are sharing a number of costs that are not talked about publicly that lower their overall development and support costs," he says. The alliance's version of Linux will likely be the boost that some of the current and potential partners need to keep going, he says.

So far, the effort has shown progress by attracting independent software vendors to port their applications to UnitedLinux and by creating common support and call centers to help customers, Claybrook says. "I would give them an A- at this point; however, we will see a lot more in the next year. One thing the UnitedLinux members have going for them is the [operating system] itself. I would give it an A+."

"Each of the vendors individually didn't have a whole lot of market penetration" before joining up, says IDC analyst Al Gillen. "What they've done in effect is put all their cards together to have a bigger deck."

Gillen says he would have argued a year ago that Wakefield, Mass.-based UnitedLinux would have a tough time taking on Red Hat's dominance. But since then, Raleigh, N.C.-based Red Hat changed its server licensing, requiring customers to purchase a copy of its server operating system for each machine, just as UnitedLinux requires. "Because those terms are more restrictive than a traditional Linux license, it levels the playing field somewhat," Gillen says.

Here's what the alliance has offered users in its first 10 months:

Uniformity and Robustness

Gregory Blepp, SuSE vice president of international sales, says customers have gained uniformity and robustness under UnitedLinux. Although none of the companies has a worldwide presence, each has local market strengths that helped build the alliance, he says. "The real global coverage was missing . . . so this was one of the driving factors of UnitedLinux," Blepp says.

The companies sell their own branded versions of UnitedLinux. The core operating system is the same in each, but extra add-ins vary. Each company ships its own version on four CDs, including three with the core UnitedLinux ingredients.

The first version of UnitedLinux Enterprise Server, based on SuSE's Linux Enterprise Server 7, was released on schedule in November, and a "carrier-grade" version for the telecommunications industry is in the works.

Easier App Certification

With UnitedLinux, software vendors can now build just one version of an application for certification on one platform, instead of having to get it certified with each of the four companies, Blepp says. That saves costly porting, testing and certification steps and is already encouraging more developers to create new business applications for UnitedLinux, he says.

Each partner adds special attributes, he says. SuSE and SCO bring combined development resources, while Turbolinux brings expertise in localizing the Linux distributions for many different spoken languages. Conectiva specializes in easy deployment and support.

Stacey Quandt, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., says the alliance got off to a slow start by not providing an easy means for software developers to port their products to UnitedLinux. That changed with the announcement in January of a UnitedLinux Developer Zone Web site. "It was a major shortcoming, and now they have addressed that," Quandt says.

Longer Cycle Times

Paula Hunter, general manager of UnitedLinux, says another key benefit for corporate users is that the partnership has scheduled release cycles for future upgrades that are longer than traditional open-source software release cycles. That gives business users more time to be sure their needed applications will run well, she says.

Moreover, the alliance can provide support to customers from any of the partners as needed, Hunter says. "It's important to realize that we're a global concern," she says.

Hunter says that because UnitedLinux didn't begin shipping its server operating system until November, analysts haven't yet recognized its growing popularity among customers. "It's still a little early for them to be counting [unit] shipments. We are winning major brand-name accounts here in the U.S. We recognize that's where the analysts want to see traction," she says.

Late last year, Turbolinux sold its operating system business to Software Research Associates Inc. in Tokyo, which is continuing the partnership in UnitedLinux, says Fumiko Doi, director of marketing at Turbolinux. The company remains committed to the effort, she says.

IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. have signed on as technology partners in support of UnitedLinux. IBM and HP are supporting both Red Hat and UnitedLinux on their Linux hardware.

Quandt says that even as the No. 2 player in the U.S. market, UnitedLinux "has the potential to chip away at Red Hat's leadership if its [software vendor] ecosystem matures rapidly." Elsewhere in the world—Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region—Red Hat's penetration is lesser and often exceeded by the individual UnitedLinux partners. In such places, UnitedLinux could erode Red Hat's market share, she says.

UnitedLinux Arrives

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Users in the OS Slow Lane

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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