Monday, 01 October 2007 18:25

FOSS: The major players in Linux and free- and open-source software


As free and open source software receives greater attention and recognition, several companies and packages are emerging as clear leaders and important influencers as well as visionaries that are sure to make a mark in the very near future. Here are my picks for who’s making a mark today and tomorrow on the FOSS world.


The ubiquitous Google is continuing its seemingly relentless path of being involved in, well, simply everything! Part of this is the extremely generous and well-received annual “Summer of code” project. The 2007 event brought together 900 students and almost 1,500 mentors across 90 countries, contributing to a very impressive 130 different open source projects.

Most of these open source projects had a number of Summer of Code projects running; for instance, PHP – the popular general-purpose scripting language – had sponsored projects to improve PHP’s trigger for marking when a variable can be freed from memory and to bring greater quality and ease of documentation among others. PHP benefited – and thus its bevy of users – by Google paying a stipend to students. This freed the students from having to seek other employment and allowed them to contribute to the project, ultimately producing real working production code.

Popular blogging platform, Wordpress, also had a variety of sponsored projects. These included enhancing facilities for readers to deposit comments, adding podcasting support, internationalisation concerns and more.

What’s most astonishing about the Summer of Code is that Google really do not clearly appear to benefit. Instead, they are using their own money to fund development of clearly defined and external open source projects. Personally, I’d have been ecstatic when a University student to have a paid vacation opportunity like this (but we didn’t have the World Wide Web when I was a boy :-) Consequently, Google really do deserve acclaim for their tangible support in enhancing and promoting free and open-source software throughout the world, not to mention steeping new generations of graduate software developers in open-source ways.

October 2007 will go down in history; this is the month that OpenMoko will be releasing the Neo 1973 mobile phone. It’s not just any phone and the apparent lack of mass hype (compared to the Apple iPhone at least) betrays the significance of this product.

Let’s cut to the chase: OpenMoko have developed the world’s first truly open-source smartphone. Every piece from the boot loader through to the end-user applications are open, and users are actively encouraged to develop them. Other attempts have been made in the past by other companies, but the OpenMoko is right at the point of release, without having compromised its design intentions.

A developer version is, in fact, already available and can be purchased now, the only caveat being it is short on finished apps. A special advanced version is also available for purchase which comes in an extremely handsome padded case and includes hardware debugging facilities along with a Torx screwdriver to open the device’s casing – there’s no vendor problems with poking around inside, here!

OpenMoko have made a distribution (“OpenMoko distribution”, natch) bundling their software platform, which itself is built on top of the Linux kernel, the GNU C library, X-Windows and the GTK+ toolkit among other well-known, robust and established FOSS code. As device drivers are required, OpenMoko have committed to release all code through SVN version control (and stating a preference that the code actually be embedded into the Linux kernel and other source applications.)

Hardware wise, the Neo 1973 continues its course of openness; chips have been selected based on having complete documentation publicly available such as the ARM-based Samsung S3C2410 SOC processor. A GPRS-capable quad-band GSM modem is standard, along with Bluetooth, USB, a 640x480 LCD display and GPS support. Memory weighs in at 128Mb RAM and 64Mb NAND Flash with an SDIO-capable microSD card. A 512Mb card is included, but obviously can be easily replaced.

OpenMoko really is remarkable, in terms of both the product itself as well as the philosophy of the company who freely give away all the keys to allow anyone to get the most out of the phone as can possibly be done.

XenSource and rPath
Virtualisation is becoming a big deal. Sure, it’s cool on the desktop – you can try out different Linux distros, and you can run Windows, MacOS and Linux all at the one time in separate windows. We’ve covered this before. But where virtualisation really will take off is in server environments.

There’s no shortage of server-side utility: virtual servers can run essential legacy apps even when there maintaining a separate physical server can’t be justified. Additionally, virtual servers can run a host of partitioned server environments on a single set of hardware. This decreases hardware costs, maintenance issues and even has a positive benefit on disaster recovery – bringing a dead server online is no harder than restoring a virtual hard drive onto a new, working system.

XenSource is a powerful and high-performance virtual server environment. By itself, it is important as is due to the facilities it offers and its native Linux support. However, it is fairly evident that virtualisation is becoming a more important emerging technology as we approach 2008.

Server manufacturers have been looking at providing firmware embedded virtualisation hypervisors rather than have their customers rely on software solutions that run on top of an installed OS. Speculators believe that a FOSS option is appealing due to its vendor neutrality, and consequently that XenSource is well-placed to capitalise on the coming demand if they can develop an inexpensive hypervisor that is able to easily be embedded within firmware.

This, too, then opens the way for another company which is sure to make a future mark; rPath have come about to solve the problem of converting software applications into appliances.

rPath make the good point that applications based on Linux platforms should be able to assume that any selection of industry standard hardware will work for them, but this rarely happens in practice. As a result, valuable research and development time is spent debugging system software problems and hardware compatibility issues – neither of which add any value to the application.

It’s these frustrating matters that rPath specialise in. Their goal is take your software application and wrap it up as a fully integrated software “appliance”. By this, rPath mean that their platform will convert an open source application to a complete, all-in-one installation with all required components and dependencies included.

What’s more, the output can be a disk or ISO image as expected, but also a virtual hard drive in one of many different formats (most notably VMWare, Microsoft Virtual Server and XenSource.) A free version is available for projects which are themselves free and available to the community, meaning any FOSS project can already benefit.

Indeed, whether the software application is FOSS or a proprietary commercial application, rPath provide the means to make it self-contained – which will become a far more important distribution mechanism as virtualisation comes into its own. In time, rPath believe, future applications will arrive as fully integrated software appliances that run atop the virtualisation layer be this hardware or software virtualisation.

Canonical and Red Hat
Mention absolutely has to go to Canonical and Red Hat, arguably the two most influential Linux distro providers about. Both are competing daily in head-to-head comparisons with Microsoft Windows PCs.

Canonical has to be applauded for attracting the masses into adopting Linux via various means. One of these is production of what is generally considered the most user-friendly Linux distro about, Ubuntu. And, not least is how Dell now pre-installed Linux on a line of its desktop systems. The brave experiment here has caused a domino effect with Hewlett Packard, Lenovo and other desktop providers now seeking to deliver their own free software desktop. The contribution this makes to the recognition of open source software cannot be underestimated.

Red Hat richly deserves recognition for their leadership in legitimising open source as a viable commercial enterprise. In addition, Red Hat have made strong contributions to the Linux platform, adding real code to the kernel itself, to the GCC compiler and glibc libraries, as well as application work with JBoss and PostgreSQL.

Red Hat also oversee a rigorous and respected Linux certification process, which while not as platform neutral as other offerings is genuinely tough to pass and completion is considered the pinnacle of Linux accreditation. You can read more in our guide to Linux certification offerings and why we say this.

That’s our picks for who is influential in open source now, and who will be tomorrow. However, nevertheless, the big deal of free and open-source software is that it is an army of millions. It is not an arena susceptible to domination by a mere few. And this is its chief strength.



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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.


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