Fragmentation For Linux
Despite its surge as an enterprise operating system, Linux may still meet a fate similar to that of Unix: fragmentation.
Unix in the 1980s and early 1990s promised many of the strengths that Linux boasts today: It had APIs and source code that were open rather than controlled by a single vendor, a modular architecture, and it ran on multiple hardware platforms. Unix failed to fulfill its initial promise because vendors fought over interfaces and APIs. Ultimately, Unix ceased to exist as a single operating system, instead becoming several operating systems from numerous vendors, with each supplier’s implementation incompatible with the other’s.
On the surface, it appears history is repeating itself. There are multiple vendors producing versions of Linux. While there are about four major distributions of Linux, there are 140 different versions in total, including versions in Finnish and Hebrew, according to International Data Corp.
There is some fragmentation in the form of incompatibilities or inconsistencies among the different distributions of Linux, said industry analyst Jonathan Eunice, of Illuminata.
Namely, the multitude of different Linux distributions have their own installation programs, management tools, user interfaces, and add-ons such as clustering technology. Moreover, without a single authority to enforce APIs, there is nothing to prevent a vendor from coming out with a distribution of Linux that breaks compatibility with other vendors’ versions of the operating system, critics said.
Despite the fact that both Unix and Linux are similar in that they both share common APIs, Linux supporters said there are important differences that will prevent a repeat of what happened to Unix.
Notably, market pressure forces Linux vendors to continue their conformity; a vendor that develops a nonstandard version of Linux won’t be able to sell his product.
“Fragmentation is just FUD — I don’t believe that’s a real issue,” said Tom Schenk, systems administration lead at Deja.com, which runs its consumer website on Linux. “The community is self-regulating in that respect. If you make something that’s incompatible, people won’t use it.”
Open source licensing will prevent vendors from building proprietary extensions into Linux because extensions become public property as soon as they’re produced, according to Kim Knutilla, director of engineering at Red Hat.
“From our perspective, as long as you stick to open source and to the GPL and don’t play proprietary games, that goes a long way to stopping fragmentation,” Knutilla said.
Marty Larsen, director of professional services at systems vendor VA Linux, said the Linux distribution vendors derive their revenue primarily from consulting and customization rather than selling code, and have it in their best interest to let the open source community optimize their code.
Aaron McKee, senior technical marketing engineer at TurboLinux also said vendors have it in their self-interest to keep source open, because they reap the benefit of the entire community working on projects, rather than just the programmers on their own payroll.
“We’re all in business because we leverage a huge developer pool,” McKee said. “How else do you compete against Microsoft and Sun?”
By comparison, Unix was fragmented from day one. It started out its commercial life with competing versions. As quickly as it was developed, Unix evolved into two incompatible versions — the AT&T; version and the BSD version — that are the parents of all Unix versions marketed today, while Linux is still evolving the same kernel that Linux inventor Linus Torvalds wrote nine years ago.
“Fundamentally, we’re in the same pool here, we’re all working with Linus’ kernel,” McKee said. “We don’t see any fear of forking.”
Whether or not Linux will be fragmented will continue to be debated. However, Torvalds said fragmentation can actually be a good thing.
“Fragmentation has been the bogeyman of Linux. Everyone asks, when will Linux fragment?” Torvalds said during a recent trade show address. “Fragmentation is a good thing to some degree. What you really want to do is have a market where everybody gets to do his own thing. Then you have a market that is not controlled by one entity. But at the same time, you want to avoid the bad things that come from fragmentation, such as the infighting between vendors, where people spend a lot of energy on fighting rather than making a good product.”
Unix’s problems came when vendors differentiated their products for the sake of competition rather than to improve the product for their customers. That same sort of fragmentation is currently plaguing Java. But the open source nature of Linux prevents vendors from differentiating in that fashion, even where they may want to, because Linux vendors don’t control the code, Torvalds said. Sun Microsystems maintains control of Java.
The ability to run Linux on a diverse number of platforms, from consumers’ refrigerators to supercomputers, is a good kind of fragmentation, as is the platform’s internationalization.
“The other thing that’s good about fragmentation is that you want to have customers that don’t go to one company for their needs,” Torvalds said.