Observers Mull Impact Of Oracle's Unbreakable Linux 2.0

Linux operating system

Oracle on Wednesday unveiled plans to provide full enterprise support for a derivative of Red Hat Linux. The Redwood Shores, Calif.-based software giant also said it would release internally developed bug fixes and libraries to optimize Linux performance on its database and entire application suite.

Oracle's hybrid Linux offering, which combines full technical support and the development of Linux code, constitutes the company's first step into the Linux distribution business, according to observers. The tighter coupling of applications with the open-source operating system also could further commoditize the OS and accelerate the uptake of OS appliances, they said.

Oracle said it will strip out of the code any trademarked reference to Red Hat, develop its own private fixes and add-ons for customers, and release the derivative code to the market. That plan makes Oracle a bona fide rival to Red Hat, Novell and Microsoft -- at least on paper, according to Al Gillen, an OS software analyst at research firm IDC.

"This does put Oracle into the Linux distribution business," Gillen said. "It will likely have a small impact on the Linux market over the first 12 months, since the most likely customers up front will be existing Oracle customers using Oracle database software on Linux or Oracle application software on Linux."

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Oracle's program isn't like other Red Hat clones, such as CentOS and rPath, because Oracle's Unbreakable Linux 2.0 will be a commercially supported Linux distribution. "You won't see anybody getting an rPath distribution for general use," Gillen said. "By comparison, you can potentially get a copy of Oracle Linux for general-purpose use."

Others dismissed Oracle's Linux announcement as a swipe at Red Hat for acquiring middleware rival JBoss, or possibly an attempt to undermine Red Hat's stock price and prime it for a hostile takeover by Oracle.

But Oracle may have something else in mind besides killing Red Hat and irritating Microsoft, observers noted. Like many other application vendors caught in the crossfire of the virtualization software craze, Oracle could be trying to gain control over how its applications are deployed and paid for in the virtual era. Red Hat's next Linux distribution will contain the Xen hypervisor.

"ISVs need to control their application destiny as virtualization accelerates. They have to control what OS components are installed with their application in the virtual container because of efficiency and supportability," said one high-tech venture capitalist, who declined to be named. "ISVs need to control their own stack, and it becomes increasingly important as virtualization comes to fruition."

The competitive dynamics are more acute for Oracle, since its two key competitors in the middleware market -- Red Hat and Microsoft -- own the operating system and will have virtualization hypervisors in their respective platforms.

Oracle's moves could spur other ISVs, application vendors and even OEMs to build, bundle and support their own custom Linux derivatives with their applications, which would have a profound impact on the entire OS landscape, observers said. "Oracle's entry into the market clearly raises the stakes, and the tighter coupling between the operating system and the database applications could be the beginning of the appliance model," said John Bara, vice president of marketing at virtualization software maker XenSource. "In the model, the applications and the OS are fused together through some sort of virtualization container."

In the near term, Red Hat downplayed the potential risk to its mainstream Linux distribution and support businesses. Red Hat and Novell, the other leading commercial Linux vendor, said their global technical support teams are well-equipped to compete against Oracle or any other vendor.

Still, Red Hat partners are weighing the impact of Oracle's move. And some question why customers would choose Oracle's pricey proprietary software and licensing costs over Red Hat's open-source stack.

"Akibia, like a few others, was a little surprised at the scope and the breadth of the Oracle announcement yesterday about supporting Red Hat Linux," said Ken Mclaurin, senior marketing manager of open source and virtualization at Akibia, a Westborough, Mass.-based data center services firm. "From a customer perspective, we are trying to understand how saving about $500 to $1,000 [per] year on Red Hat Linux costs makes good business sense ... but within the next week we will have much more insight into the Oracle details."

Solution providers say Oracle is treading on thin ice, but they don't see the company becoming a mainstream OS vendor and knocking out Red Hat or slicing up the Linux market. What's more, few solution providers see any potential downside to the growing channels of Red Hat and Novell, which offer services and support on Linux.

"More competition is better. It's not like Novell has been very good at competing with Red Hat the enterprise level," said Chris Maresca, senior partner and co-founder of Olliance Consulting, Palo Alto, Calif. "Oracle has been supporting Linux for four years already. That was with Red Hat as third- and fourth-tier support, but they've had a Linux kernel team this whole time."

"I doubt many ISVs will prefer Oracle as their distribution of choice over Red Hat or Novell," said a source at an OEM familar with Oracle's plans. "Yes, this will increase competition and maybe ruffle some feathers, but in the end it gets better code to customers and creates more competition, which is a good thing."

Some predicted failure for Oracle. A spokesman for Optaris, a Cambridge, Mass-based open-source services firm, maintained that Oracle isn't an OS expert because it's not in the company's DNA. And for that reason, Oracle likely won't offer the same quality of service or OS knowledge as Red Hat, he said.

Andrew Hudson, co-author of "Fedora 5 Unleashed", a book about Red Hat's open-source project, said Oracle probably won't have much success. "I don't understand why Oracle would claim that customers often would need to upgrade to a new version of Linux software for bug fixes," Hudson said. "Switching to Unbreakable Linux cuts you off from direct Red Hat support, something which is only for the brave."

Yet rPath co-founder and CEO Billy Marshall said Oracle could very well become the Linux supplier for all of its customers. "We will all have to wait and see if Oracle emerges as a credible provider of a general-purpose operating system," said Marshall, a former vice president of North American sales at Red Hat, in his blog posted after Oracle's announcement. "However, Oracle has not distinguished itself in other similar general-purpose infrastructure categories.

"It is more likely that a customer move to the Oracle maintenance stream will be a permanent move because the resulting system will quickly become incompatible with Red Hat maintenance," Marshall continued in the blog. "Perhaps the Oracle system will be better. We will have to wait and see."