Sunday, August 5, 2007

Which Is The Best Linux Strategy?

Right now their are to two major strategies to build "the greatest Linux distribution" shown best by Ubuntu and Red Hat. Both stay true to the fundamental open source philosophy: give everyone the opportunity to review and improve the source code, while at the same time differing on how to fund the ordeal. I have been contemplating the pros and cons of each for months and am still not quite sure what is best.

Red Hat Philosophy: Open source the code as stated above, but charge for the compiled OS, executables, service and support.

Red Had Pros: What I like about this strategy is the main people writing the software have sustainable jobs funded by people who use their product. According to the Wikipedia they can thus employ 2,200 full time employees and are worth $278.3 million. This means there are a good number of people who have a full time job geared toward making Red Hat a quality distribution. Their fruits are paying off well as they have for years been the most used Linux Distribution in the world. They also have more certifications and business deals with governments and corporations then anyone else.

Red Hat Cons: The Wikipedia did not become what it is today through payed employees. The Wikipedia is a fine example of what a community that works together can accomplish. Red Hat essentially has no community seriously contributing code for two reasons. First, since you have to pay money to run the official OS which literally tens of millions of possible contributers use something else. Second, since Red Hat is so corporation minded, they don't trust changes made by the average Joe. They will review them and maybe even accept them, but like MS and Apple, at the end of the day only the official employees make official changes. This again means that tens of millions of potential contributors are cut off.
Ubuntu Philosophy: Let everyone, even the average Joe, have the source code and software for free. Only charge for service and support.
Ubuntu Pros: Ubuntu is the poster child of a community run Linux distribution. Ubuntu is managed by a company called Canonical with on the order of 100 employees but much of the coding is done by the average Joe. Since the average Joe can contribute, Ubuntu receives improvements by thousands, if not tens of thousands of users. Even I have contributed some code and packaged some packages because I can. :) Moreover, millions of others use it, test it, and can become potential contributers.

Canonical serves as a good supervision group. The paid employees oversee the whole project as well as code. They can do a heck of a job surviving only off of service and support since it only takes a few qualified people to supervise a vast army of volunteer contributers. (Like The Wikipedia) In effect, this model opens it up so that you get some great coders who are paid to work full time as well as a larger number of contributers then you could ever afford to sustain financially working for you. And the fruits are here. This is the most popular and highest rated Linux distribution according to normal Linux users and for the first time people like Dell are selling it pre-installed.

Ubuntu Cons: Ubuntu will probably never have as many paid employees as Red Hat. Ubuntu will always *greatly* depend on volunteer contributions. Ubuntu may have goals without the employee force to just up and do it whether or not the volunteer base is there. And in reality they have not been able to get the corporate and government certifications and contracts for these reasons. Example: SELinux has always been a goal for Ubuntu, but never seems to happen since it is so complicated that if you don''t go out and hire a bunch of really talented programmers to sit down and work on it for years, as Red Hat has done, it never seems to become a reality. Then, government agencies that demand it for security reasons will never use nor certify Ubuntu without it.

Final Analysis: I think it is still pre-mature to judge who has the better strategy. I think in the next year or two it will become obvious. For one, Ubuntu is new enough that it is hard to judge it without giving it more time. Perhaps all these certifications will happen, ever quicker for Ubuntu than they did for Red Hat, just Ubuntu is new and Red Hat has been around for years. I will give Ubuntu some credit and say it hit the world by storm and seems to not be slowing. And the do it will a model that can give away software for free! However, Red Hat is still king and it is not clear will ever be dethroned. If they have the better strategy they probably never will.

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