The Free Standards Group (FSG) is fighting to keep Linux from following the path of Unix, which branched off into several proprietary operating systems, forcing developers to write single-vendor applications. FSG executive director Jim Zemlin is leading that advance and waving the flag of the Linux Standard Base (LSB) all the way.
FSG unveiled new certifications for LSB 2.0 -- a binary standard that delivers interoperability across different hardware environments running open standards-compliant Linux -- at the recent LinuxWorld Boston Conference and Expo. Next month, the LSB Workgroup is meeting to start working on the next version of the standard.
In this interview, Zemlin explains why a uniform open standard will divert Linux from the Unix method of vendor lock-in, and why businesses would do well to start choosing LSB-compliant software today.
What is the difference between standards in proprietary software and the Linux and open source community?
Jim Zemlin: The easiest example is Microsoft's operating system, which is a de facto standard in the proprietary world. The operating system is a standard because only one company produces that standard. You can also contrast that with the lack of standardization in Unix, where you have different variants of the Unix operating systems [including] Solaris, HP-UX, IBM AIX and so on.
Then, you have the Linux Standard Base for Linux, which is a standard for all the major Linux distributions all over the world. The Linux Standard Base is the result of a group effort to create and use a standard that fits the model of Linux and open source.
How do these differences play out in the marketplace?
Zemlin: Companies really care about their data and their applications, but they want to run those on the most cost effective platform available. An open standard enables those companies to move that data and those applications to another more cost-effective platform without legal or budgetary penalties. That is the promise of an open standard. In Microsoft's world, you can't move easily. You are locked into Microsoft and its standard.
Open standards will change the metrics of competition by eliminating lock-in. An open standard gives users the flexibility to make moves to get the best price, performance, security, maintenance, reliability and support. For the first time in computing history, there is a widely- adopted open standards-based platform. It's revolutionary.
I believe that the industry has to have a truly global, open standard that allows for ease of migration from vendor product to vendor product. If developers have to port their applications to multiple shades of Linux, their costs rise and they end up porting only to the dominant version of Linux. In a worst case, they simply won't write Linux applications at all. The result? End users have little choice and the promise of open source is stalled. Linux ceases to grow [because] an operating system is only as strong as the applications that are written to it.
What is the best way for companies to include compliance with LSB in their purchasing criteria?
Zemlin: They should request it in maintenance and support agreements from Linux distribution vendors and their third-party partners. In fact, we are going to be publishing legal wording that they can just cut and paste into their maintenance agreements, so that compliance is a part of any contractual relationship with the distribution.
Are all Linux distributions and the applications that run on them based on LSB?
Zemlin: All the majors distributions have adopted LSB as a standard. However, most can't guarantee interoperability of all the applications that run on their distributions today because the LSB does not cover enough of the application libraries.
I have gone to the industry application, system and distribution vendors and other standards groups and asked [what] we need to make LSB work for everyone. With the feedback I've gotten, FSG has constructed a road map to build out the standard. Subsequent versions of LSB will address those gaps.
IT managers who like Microsoft's products praise the tight integration of the MS family of applications. Will LSB enable that type of integration of applications for Linux?
Zemlin: LSB is the direct answer to that question and will bring that tight integration to applications for Linux.
In the meantime, IT shops should look for applications that are built by members or supporters of the Free Standards Group. That's an indication that the company in question has a long-term goal of supporting a true open standard core for computing.
I advise IT managers to start choosing open standards-based applications today, and five-to-10 years out your company will be in a position to choose and run the best software possible without fear that the chosen software won't be compatible with legacy, open standards software.
On our Web site, there's a list of members. Feel free to send e-mails to those organizations and ask about particular applications.
Are there competing open standards?
Zemlin: Fortunately, most of the efforts for open standards have been coordinated. There are different approaches to standardization, yes. There have been ideas of reference platforms, for instance. UnitedLinux is an example wherein a number of companies and developers have worked to produce a uniform distribution designed for businesses. I don't think that standard distribution concept supports a competitive ecosystem of third-party distribution and application vendors. With UnitedLinux, they and the users are all locked into the engineering and release cycles of whoever is producing disk one.
With LSB, you have a written specification that a distribution vendor can implement however he wants. Users, vendors and the community at large have gotten behind this standard, and it is particularly well-suited to fit the needs of the Linux and open source community.