Are Platform Vendors Stealing Linux?

Physical or virtual, vendors seem intent on selling their own Linux distros

Something rather interesting is going on in the Linux enterprise space, something which I think enterprise Linux vendors (and the rest of us) need to pay attention.

It started with a rather quiet announcement on September 14, when Amazon--you know, the book-and-cloud vendor--announced the Amazon Linux AMI for their Elastic Computing Cloud (EC2) service. An AMI, for those not familiar with the term, is how Amazon Web Services refers to a virtual machine on its EC2 network. This new Amazon Linux AMI, then, essentially represents a new Linux distro for the enterprise, albeit one that runs on EC2 only.

At the time, I didn't think much of it, since yet another distro is part and parcel with the Linux lifestyle.

But then Oracle came out with its wacky announcement on Monday of this week: it was releasing a new, optimized-for-Oracle-hardware-and-software Linux kernel to go along with its rebranded Oracle Linux offering. I have already called this as a blatant attempt to sell Oracle boxes and software, but I got to thinking about these two seemingly unrelated announcements and I came up with a disturbing question.

Why are platform vendors so keen to promote their own Linux distributions?

Because, if you think about it, that's exactly what's going on. True, Oracle Linux is trying to grab more boxes, and Amazon Linux is grabbing more cloud, but the goals seem the same: the makers of the platforms are trying to shut out the existing legacy operating systems.

Ironically, they're doing this using the existing OS tools. Oracle Linux, despite its fancy-schmancy kernel, is still a clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), and Amazon Linux is basically a stripped-down version of CentOS, itself a clone of--you guessed it--RHEL.

In the past, platform vendors were content to sell their boxes (or cloud instances), and let the OS vendor, whoever it might be, make their money off OS sales, support, and service. Now it seems that as everybody watches Red Hat racking up quarter after successful quarter results, these platform companies all want a piece of the Red Hat pie, too. And why not? Now they can sell the physical box or cloud machine and collect extra revenue on support contracts.

It would be analogous, say, to Lenovo deciding to sell its own OS on its PCs and laptops instead of Windows. Or Apple forcing everyone to load OS X on all of--er, wait, they already do that, don't they?

And, jokes aside, Apple's success with the tight OS/platform relationship it has on all of its devices may be a model that a lot of enterprise companies find attractive. I don't think it's an accident that suddenly companies like Oracle and Amazon are looking at the success of Red Hat's support model and the advantages a locked OS/hardware scenario can present and are now trying to model their own business strategies in a similar fashion.

Of course, such advantages are good for the companies, but not so much the end user. As I already pointed out, trying to un-do the commoditization of Linux does the customer a huge disservice, because you're essentially introducing vendor lock in again. Ultimately, I think the customers should get wise to this and resist such "tuned" versions of Linux.

But what if they don't? If a vendor can tune a Linux enough, customers might want to stick with the vendor's brand. Make the pricing and implementation simple--as Sprint did with its cellular pricing plans a couple of years ago--and customers may even pay an extra premium for the platform vendor's Linux.

The success of just such a plan hinges on just how much "better" a platform vendor's Linux is and how compatible its application space is with other Linux distros. Not to mention what the response of Red Hat, Novell, and Canonical will be for their respective RHEL, SUSE Enterprise Linux, and Ubuntu Server offerings.

It will need to be an interesting response, because right now Oracle and Amazon have something these other three companies don't: a platform (be it physical or virtual). That will be a tricky thing to negate.

This story, "Are Platform Vendors Stealing Linux?" was originally published by ITworld.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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