Topping months of increasing media hype around Linux, Netscape and Intel on Tuesday announced that they have taken a minority stake in Red Hat Software.
Though rumours of the deal surfaced last week, the announcement was officially made at ISPcon, a trade show for Internet service providers (ISPs) this week in San Jose, California. This location was no coincidence: ISPs have been among the most enthusiast adopters of Linux.
Red Hat, the North Carolina company which sells a popular shrink-wrapped Intel version of the free operating system, is receiving unspecified minority investments from Netscape, Intel and from two venture capitalists, Greylock and Benchmark Partners.
The announcement is widely perceived as a major boost to the open sourcecode operating system originally developed in 1991 by Linus Torvalds. It also arguably makes Red Hat Linux 5 the standard "flavour" of Linux and Red Hat Software the key Linux provider to corporate customers.
The operating system's sourcecode can be downloaded for free. But a number of companies including Red Hat and Caldera have built a business out of selling and supporting commercial versions of Linux.
These different versions (called Linux "distributions") all share the same Linux kernel, developed under supervision of Linus Torvalds, but differ in many other respects. As a result applications written for one Linux distribution will not always run on alternative versions.
While little reliable data exists on the number of people actually using Linux, the operating system has clearly won a lot of mindshare in recent months. All major database vendors have recently announced Linux ports of their software, with the notable exception of Microsoft.
Red Hat will use the new investments to create an Enterprise Computing Division, which will offer products and services to enterprise customers. And the close links with Intel will help the company optimise its operating system for current and future of Intel-processors including the 64-bit Merced.
Intel vice president Sean Maloney said the move did not mean Intel is distancing itself from long time partner Microsoft.
"The reality is a lot more boring than that," said Maloney. "It really is business as usual." Maloney said Intel's support for NT would be unaffected, but pointed out: "It's a heterogeneous world. We have to be agnostic because there's going to be a wide range of operating systems for a long time to come."
Maloney also stressed that the Linux deal is not exclusive. "We are looking forward to working with other Linux distributions as well," he said.
But Netscape's John Paul said it is becoming impossible to test every application on every Linux variant. "We want one Linux version," he said. Netscape will make sure its software runs on Red Hat Linux. Other Linux distributors will have to do their own testing and certifying said John Paul.
If other application vendors follow this example competing Linux distributions would be at a marked disadvantage.
Another quite radical change for the Linux-community: Netscape said that, unlike many current Linux applications, the Linux versions of Netscape's server products will not come with sourcecode.
Netscape has been eyeing the Linux phenomenon for a while. Co-founder Marc Andreessen has been a vocal supporter of open source code model. In January, Netscape decided to adopt the model for the next generation of its Communicator browser. Recently the company announced it would port its server products to Linux.
Linux creator Linus Torvalds was at ISPcon on Tuesday, where he spoke at the Red Hat announcement.
Torvalds conceded that Linux is not quite ready for some high end applications yet. "It's only really scalable to two processors right now," he said. But he claimed the next version of the Linux kernel would offer better multiprocessor support. This new version is expected to be "stable" in a month or two, Torvalds said.
He also said Linux, which runs on Alpha and Super Sparc processors, had a head start in moving to 64-bit Intel processors. "We've solved all the problems already, and there's very few operating systems that can say that," he claimed.
He also was optimistic that more software would be ported to his operating system. "In three to five years we will have all the office suites and all the games," he claimed. "That's when total world domination is complete."
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