Network: Beware the penguin, Bill

A free DIY operating system that has developed a cult following on the Internet is now posing a serious threat to Microsoft's Windows NT. What lies behind the rapid rise of Linux?

If you had problems getting money out of a NatWest cash machine earlier this year, then you may be interested in some news that arrived last week from halfway around the world.

In Menlo Park, California, a little company called Red Hat Software, which charges $50 for Linux - a sort of DIY version of the Unix operating system whose official logo is a penguin - received a sizeable (but unrevealed) investment from two big names, Netscape and Intel, and two Silicon Valley venture capitalists.

The connection isn't obvious at first. NatWest's problems stemmed from its use of Windows NT, the corporate version of its operating system that you see on most PCs. Many corporations are basing their IT systems around NT and related software: in theory, it makes getting support easier.

The trouble is that NT4, the current version, isn't robust enough for some of the tasks it is being put to. NatWest's cash machine troubles stemmed from a "memory leak" that progressively ate up all the free RAM through the day. Eventually, it stalled the system.

Microsoft says not to worry: it will soon release a new version, NT5, which will solve all of these problems. (This is a familiar refrain from any software company, but especially the Bill Gates behemoth.)

However, in the past few months the definition of "soon" has slipped further and further into 1999, or maybe beyond. Meanwhile, big companies that need something stable, and sooner than Microsoft's "soon", are eyeing up alternatives.

Enter Linux. Released via the Internet in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, then a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland, it is actually free. No company owns it, and changes are only made by Torvalds himself after he has considered comments and suggestions from programmers sent to him via the Internet. Linux runs on Intel-based processors - just as Windows NT does.

"In early '92, the user base went from five long-haired hacker guys to 100. That was a surprise," Torvalds said last week. (He now works at a Silicon Valley software startup company.)

At present, there are about eight million Linux users worldwide; many are Internet service providers who, as do the rest of us, like the price tag of freeware. However, what you save on the Linux license you will probably spend in time finding your way around it, unless you are very, very Unix-savvy.

That is because there is no formal support for Linux, although Torvalds points out that the many Linux fans on the Internet, where it has built up a cult following, will analyse problems and write and test bug patches faster than most commercial software developers will admit to their existence.

Even so, companies like Red Hat have devised a business model where, in return for "buying" a free product, you get a support line. It is a business model that just might work; as The Unix-Haters' Handbook, written by disgruntled Unix programmers, warns: "Linux is only free if your time is worthless."

The latest investment in Red Hat is intended to help it set up a division specifically to support large corporate customers that use Linux. Why should they want it? It's to do with what companies want out of an "enterprise" operating system.

First, they want it to be stable - not prone to falling over or susceptible to bugs. Despite being only seven years old, Linux's release over the Internet meant that it got straight to the best bug-hunters - battle-hardened Unix programmers. Second, large companies want something "scalable", so that it will run on everything from a PC up to a supercompute. This is, quite literally, true of Linux.

It also helps if it runs on Intel architecture, which means you can shop around for cheaper chips from makers such as AMD and Cyrix, which offer Pentium-alikes. That saves the company from being tied to one supplier.

Increasingly, many companies that have made the change to Linux are finding that they quite like it; their fanaticism is analogous to that for Apple Macs vis-a-vis Windows on PCs. Digital Domain, which created the computer graphics for Titanic, runs its workstations on Linux. Southwestern Bell, the giant US telecoms company, found costs and problems fell when it replaced Windows NT with Linux to monitor network operations.

At the University of Leeds, Mark Conmy, computer software officer, told Computer Weekly magazine last week that Linux scored for reliability: "We have installed 67 Linux machines, and while we have to reboot our NT4 server two or three times a week, we only need to reboot a Linux server every few months." (The university uses both systems to give students exposure to as many platforms as possible.)

But while reliability is critical, an operating system needs commercial software to run on it before it has a chance of leapfrogging the so-far non-existent Windows NT5.

However, that has quietly been happening, too. The big databases from the likes of IBM, Oracle and Sybase are being "ported" to Linux. Databases are key to modern business; and once IBM's DB/2, a real warhorse, is available for it, the operating system will acquire a whole new kudos.

Yes, but does Microsoft really care what happens with some cultish operating system? You betcha. "Freeware is making inroads into the glass house," Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's president, said at the Seybold publishing conference in San Francisco last month. "Are we worried about Linux? ... Sure we are worried."

Microsoft formalised that worry in a filing last week to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, where a note advised existing and potential investors in its stock that "Linux is gaining increasing acceptance" that could eat into Microsoft's market share.

So why should Intel, usually thought of as a Microsoft buddy, want to invest in Red Hat, effectively endorsing a rival operating system? Because if NT and Linux start slugging it out, the benefits will accrue to Intel - after all, both run on its chips.

However, don't expect to see Linux running on a PC near you sometime soon, unless you want to return to the mystifying days when computers spoke in blinking command-line cursors. But Red Hat has a project under way, called Gnome, to devise a graphical user interface; if it works, then Linux may start making a real dent in Bill Gates's desktop domain.

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