Ex-Red Hatters Launch Specifix For Customizing Linux

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Two former Red Hat executives said they will launch later this year a Linux platform, called Conary, that will enable customers to tailor their Linux distributions yet still get vendor support.

Erik Troan, among the original employees of Red Hat who served as vice president of Product Engineering and director of Product Marketing, and Kim Knutilla, a former Cygnus executive and Red Hat vice president of Engineering Services, this week revealed their platform plans and launched the company they co-founded, Specifix. The company is based in San Jose, Calif. Knutilla is Specifix CEO.

Specifix formally released into testing the first alpha version of Conary, a Linux distribution building technology. The platform -- expected to be released late 2004 -- allows customers and OEMs to build and deploy a custom Linux implementation across an unlimited number of configurations and hardware platforms.

Using the Linux OS platform, customers can modify Linux source code, track changes and merge changes with a Specifix reference implementation, said Troan,. Specifix will support the base OS but customers will be responsible for supporting the modifications they make, he said.

According to Troan, executive vice president of Operating Systems, the model is ideal for Fortune 500 customers and manufacturers that want greater customization capabilities along with vendor support. That combination isn't available to Red Hat's enterprise customers, which lose vendor support if they modify Red Hat's enterprise stack of Linux binary code.

"We're going after a market we don't see anyone serving right now," said Troan. "A lot of people don't want to run off-the-shelf Linux, and they want the ability to tailor the distribution without owning the whole thing. If you buy Red Hat and you change the binaries, you can't talk to [Red Hat] support anymore. We will talk to them."

The platform will help customers using Red Hat Linux, for instance, create custom builds with different security settings for each server or desktop. and receive technical support from Specifix.

One analyst said the new model addresses one of the commercial weaknesses of open source and Linux, but he questioned how Specifix will deal with custom changes that break the core Conary OS platform.

"In principle, this is a problem about the open source nature of Linux: open source implies customer control and manipulation of the code if they desire, but the support contracts negate that value," said George Weiss, a vice president at Gartner Group.

"If [Specifix] is able to hit some Wall Street firms that plan on massive changes of a similar kind and just want OS support, it may be able to develop a small vertically focused business. But it could be exceedingly labor intensive if the changes that users make incur application performance and compatibility problems for which the company is called for time-consuming consultations," Weiss noted.

Specifix is ironing out those details but has no intention of becoming a consulting company, Troan said. "There is no doubt that the terms and conditions are important, and we are taking the time to craft them to avoid the problems mentioned," said Troan. "We are building technology that is designed to allow us to provide high levels of support for the parts of the operating system that are unaffected by customizations, and allows our customers to track and maintain their customizations."

The privately funded company has not begun recruiting partners, but its model is wide open for solution providers to handle implementations and then support the custom code, while Specifix supports the base OS. The platform will give rise to new channel opportunities, Troan added.

Specifix offers a model a similar to one endorsed by other vendors such as Progeny, MontaVista and MetroWerks but adds value by providing compatibility with Red Hat, said Chris Maresca, senior partner at Olliance Consulting, Palo Alto, Calif.

"There is some demand for this among OEMs --Red Hat compatibility without being tied to Red Hat," said Maresca. "Otherwise that niche is being well filled by other vendors."

Troan said his model differs from others in the space because it allows customers to change any line of source code in the binaries and keep the modifications as new operating system releases are made.

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