Free Software in Reality Isn’t Free

Posted by VISITOR on Jan 14, 2005 5:32 AM EDT
LXer; By Subhasish Ghosh
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Software, whether application software like gcc or system software like Linux which are part of the Free Software Foundation attract masses by their appeal of being free. In reality, this in-born-nature of FSF software of being free (in the sense of freedom of speech and not free beer) is not so clear and cogent to a common man. More significantly, if one takes an in-depth look into the Linux world, things seem to go the other way.

[Editor's Note: See Paul Ferris' editorial in response to this.]

Linux when first appeared though did manage to make quite a good name for it, however failed to live-up to its reputation in the years to follow. It was to spell the doomsday for commercial UNIXes of the likes of Solaris, AIX, HP-UX and IRIX operating systems. But since its inception in 1991, things have hardly changed in the corporate scenario. Sun Microsystems Inc. is still the UNIX industry leader with around 34% of the UNIX market share (closely followed by IBM in the second-place) with Sun Solaris being the most widely used commercial UNIX. So, what went wrong with Linux? Stable kernels appearing late, innumerable number of useless rewrites of kernel code in a few years, unavailability of proper marketing sources and failure to fulfill the predictions of the community has not only slowed down the number of users in the recent times, but has led to a more serious and deeper thinking about Linux’s future in the recent years to follow.

Linux was initially designed to run on the Intel 32-bit platform. Though it has been ported to a larger number of hardware bases later, it still lacks the efficiency of NetBSD when it comes to free portability. But the main trick in using Linux or any other free system-level software lies not in its technical features and advances. It lies in its commercial usage capability. The most important question in the corporate world is “who is to support the systems which run Linux or any other free system-level software?” Take a look at the Wall Street and here's a snapshot. Though industry-leaders (in the Linux arena) Red Hat looks quite steady with stocks rated less than a 6.0 US dollar value, other Linux-distributing firms have less than 1.0 US dollar value. So, what’s wrong with Linux and other free software when it comes to NASDAQ? Why aren’t the corporate still embracing Linux freely and openly as when compared to proprietary hardware and software vendors like IBM, Sun and Microsoft?

Linux (also FreeBSD, OpenBSD, NetBSD) lags from commercial software like Microsoft Windows 2000, Microsoft Windows Server 2003, Sun Solaris, IBM-AIX and others when it comes to supporting the installed bases. Linux (and the community as a whole) provides no guarantee of support and maintenance to its users whatsoever. Once installed, who is in charge of proper configuration of these systems? Even once when properly configured, who is there to maintain and support these systems 24/7 around the year? Corporate managers investing their company resources while purchasing type of system-level software, application-level software and the bare hardware ought to think about the type of investment he is choosing to make rather than the often more lucrative amount of investment. Purchasing commercial hardware that runs commercial software is the best choice available. A firm choosing to purchase 5 Sun UltraSPARC stations is better off than purchasing 5 workstations powered by the Intel Pentium 4 microprocessor. Though the initial investment while buying the 5 UltraSPARC’s is pretty high, but the picture becomes clear when we consider the whole scenario. Sun SOLARIS 9 running on these systems, with Sun ONE web server software configured is an ideal system. Support and maintenance can be assured by hiring a qualified Sun Certified SOLARIS Systems/Network Administrator. Thus, though the one time cost is high, but by purchasing commercial hardware running commercial software the long-term cost is stabilized and can be closely monitored. Moreover, regular patches, fixes and upgrades to all software from Sun can be monitored and applied as when required.

On the other hand, Linux running on Intel Pentium 4 systems guarantee no support, no proper functioning of the software as well as hardware, no regular fixes, patches and upgrades to the system-level software, no maintenance of the application-level software and more significantly though the one-time cost while purchasing hardware and software may appear low, the long-term investment grows incredibly as time passes. Supporting Linux can be achieved by hiring qualified professionals well versed in all skills related to Linux. Unfortunately, certifications available are numerous and chaos still reigns supreme. A Red Hat Linux Certified Engineer (RHCE) well qualified in Red Hat Linux server administration would be pretty useless in a corporate environment which consists of 100 Pentium 4 workstations running TurboLinux. Linux distributions are numerous and so are the numbers of certifications available in the market. Even hiring professionals for the task can be a real challenge for the corporate manager. Support and maintenance can be a real pain-in-the-ass under such circumstances with a constant fear of losing acute company information, trade-secrets and invaluable client information always at the back of the mind.

Big commercial systems dealing with terabytes of information or million dollar investments ought to put support, maintenance and stability of their currently-running systems first to anything else. What happens if something breaks? Another region of space where almost all free system-level software including Linux, FreeBSD, OpenBSD and others freak out is upgradeability. Nicely put, hardware systems running free software are not easily upgradeable, and even if they are, are not upgradeable to a great extent. Linux performs the worst in this case. FreeBSD on Intel platform though is horizontally upgradeable to some extent, but miserably fails (like Linux) when vertical upgradeability is considered. Commercial systems perform totally different, on the other hand. Sun SPARC and UltraSPARC systems are both horizontally as well as vertically upgradeable to a great extent. Thus, while upgrading such already existing commercial systems running commercial software, the amount of investment required is less and the productive output achieved is more.

Thus, though Linux itself if freely available, many other aspects related to it are not free, and worse, pretty expensive and useless when compared to commercial systems. Linux may help corporate managers lowering down the one-time investment in hardware and software initially, but long-term investments get adversely affected thereby leading to a state of misuse of company resources, and more importantly support and maintenance of systems running such free software is never guaranteed, even if guaranteed by some firm, is usually of low quality and service. Corporate systems that prioritize safety and long-term investment costs to initially low one-time investments must stick to choosing commercial hardware systems running commercially certified software.

About the Author

Subhasish Ghosh, currently a final-year student of Informatics and Computer Science Engineering at the Moscow Power Engineering Institute (Technical University) tinkers with Linux, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, NetBSD and Sun Solaris operating systems. He has MCP, MCSD and MCSE certifications; currently preparing for Sun SOLARIS Systems Administrator Certification. For enquiries, comments and questions, send e-mail at:

[Editor's Note: See Paul Ferris' editorial in response to this.]

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
Duh... diegocg 3 4,087 Jan 19, 2005 7:55 AM
but it is clear to common woman tuxchick 8 5,359 Jan 19, 2005 5:27 AM
Final year EGO!! griswld 3 4,397 Jan 19, 2005 4:07 AM
So many things wrong ... Harat 4 3,797 Jan 18, 2005 2:04 PM
Most missed analysis I have read recently... kosmosik 0 3,536 Jan 18, 2005 11:42 AM
A miserable effort pyellman 1 4,633 Jan 18, 2005 7:06 AM
Server Farms gstrock 0 3,930 Jan 14, 2005 4:17 PM
Sun is better? slippery 0 3,869 Jan 14, 2005 5:49 AM

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