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Unbreakable Linux still unproven, analyst warns

Oracle made a big splash last month when it announced support for Red Hat Linux at a 50% discount, but observers wonder whether Oracle has the mettle to deliver.

IT managers running Red Hat Linux should think carefully before making the switch to Unbreakable Linux, the new Linux distribution that Oracle Corp. announced last month.

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To date, there is very little information regarding what exactly Oracle promised with Unbreakable Linux 2.0. Oracle is in essence offering a cloned version of Red Hat Inc.'s RHEL and lets anyone download the software for free. According to Oracle, Unbreakable Linux customers will see lower costs, better bug fixes and better legal protections than with Red Hat. Software updates cost $99 per server, while technical support costs $399 for a two-processor server and $999 per year for a larger system.

In comparison, Red Hat's Web site lists server support for its AS and ES versions at $349 to $799, and $1,499 and $2,499, respectively.

With so many unknowns about Unbreakable Linux, it would be grossly premature for Linux shops to jump the Red Hat ship and rush to Oracle's side, said Tony Iams, senior analyst with Rye Brook, N.Y.-based Ideas International Inc.

"There are still questions about pricing and ISV certifications and compatibility," Iams said. "Will this be 100% binary compatible with all Red Hat applications? What about middleware compatibility? Hardware certification is certainly critical and, in general, systems are sold with Red Hat and Novell SUSE Linux certifications. Oracle's Linux will be another to add to that list."

Nor does Oracle have Red Hat's track record of pricing and support, Iams warned.

"IT managers care about compatibility and about assurances that their hardware and middleware will work. They care about predictability of service and whether or not they're able to get a reliable and predictable stream of fixes and updates. And if there is an issue, they want a reliable source for getting help with that issue," Iams said. So far, Red Hat has proven that it can offer all of that in addition to JBoss, he added.

"Oracle has proven nothing in that regard. They now have to show that they can do as good a job as Red Hat. Pricing is not irrelevant," said Iams, "but if you're paying half the price [and the product is] only 50% as effective, that is not satisfactory."

Back to the future

Oracle's spotty success with jumping into new markets isn't helping it make the case for Unbreakable Linux.

"To be candid, Oracle has made some lofty announcements and [launch initiatives] in the past," Iams said. "They tried it with network computing and grid computing before, and some people went along with them. But Oracle has not shown that they have the ability to restructure entire markets by themselves."

Thus far, Charles King, the principal analyst with Heyward, Calif.-based Pund-IT Research, said there hasn't been much from Oracle regarding its plans for Linux in the future.

"The announcement caused some confusion among Red Hat customers and there were some tectonic rumbles within the stock market, but it has since recovered," King said. "So far there is not a great clamor of Oracle customers saying this is the solution to solve our Linux problems. I expect the next step would be the announcement of major customers that have migrated."

If that announcement does not arrive within the next few months, Iams said momentum could shift back to a more agnostic approach promoted by IBM over the past decade -- even with Oracle's promise of half-price support.

Stack control

Some observers, meanwhile, see Oracle's Unbreakable Linux move as more than just tapping into Red Hat's support revenue stream.

Erik Troan, chief technology officer and founder of Raleigh, N.C.-based rPath, said Oracle didn't feel as though it would be able to compete with a company like Microsoft without having full control over the software stack. rPath's rBuilder and rPath Linux are used by ISVs to create Linux-based software appliances. "All of a sudden having a full solution stack starts to look pretty important. [It's] not just to run Oracle apps -- which a software appliance product would address -- but to give Oracle sales reps the ability compete product for product with Microsoft in the enterprise," Troan said.

Running your product on someone else's stack can also leave you vulnerable, as Oracle was to SQL Server, Troan pointed out. Trusting someone else's platform is only inviting them to compete with you, he said.

"Does anyone think BEA [Systems Inc.] is excited about running on Red Hat Enterprise Linux now that Red Hat competes with them using JBoss? Who wants to sell a directory server on SUSE Linux Enterprise Server knowing that Novell has Novell Directory Services right behind it? Like it or not, controlling the full stack provides a stronger competitive position then trusting someone else's platform," Troan said.

Will IBM follow?

Analysts, meanwhile, wonder what company, if any, will follow in Oracle's footsteps and announce another proprietary version of Linux.

Iams said it would be improbable -- though not impossible – to see a player like IBM make a similar move in the future. "The question is always coming up, but I've seen no evidence to date that IBM plans to do that," he said. Such a move, Iams said, would be a "huge reversal" for Big Blue, which has always been characteristically agnostic with its approach to supporting Linux distributions.

"It's very clear that a critical part of [IBM's] strategy is to have independent, multiple suppliers of Linux," Iams said.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Jack Loftus, News Writer

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