That Cloud of Uncertainty Over Linux

Dec 1, 2003

Erin Joyce

Open source advocates say IT research bears out their claims that the many flavors of Linux are making steady strides in enterprise deployments.

But ask open source fans to comment on IBM's refusal to indemnify its Linux customers in the face of litigation over copyright disputes in some Linux code, and the arguments tend to turn to what are called specious claims by SCO Group.

Lindon, Utah-based SCO claims that IBM broke a contract agreement and has pilfered a portion of SCO Group's UNIX System V Code into Linux versions 2.4 and 2.5. IBM disputes the claims and asserts that it has a perpetual UNIX license, which SCO cannot legally revoke. The next Linux kernel release version, 2.6, is due out later this month.

Open source advocates call SCO Group's legal fight an act of desperation by a company whose revenue outlook was cloudy, at best, prior to the lawsuits.

As both SCO Group and IBM pursue litigation over SCO's claims and IBM's counterclaims, analysts say deployment of Linux in new markets is being held up by IBM's silence on the indemnification issue.

Laura DiDio, senior analyst for The Yankee Group, called IBM's stance on the issue a "disservice" to the Linux and Open Source community.

"For Linux to take its place alongside UNIX, Windows, and NetWare in the enterprise, it must be worthy in both a business and technological sense. That means strong indemnification," DiDio wrote in a recent note about the issue.

"Earlier this year, in advance of the SCO lawsuit, Microsoft revamped its indemnification program and now provides customers with the industry's most comprehensive protection against liability. Now, HP has similarly stepped up and will offer SCO-specific indemnification with no liability cap," DiDio said.

Of course, HP's warranty comes with qualifiers, such as customers agreeing to not make any alterations to the Linux Source code and that HP ship its products with versions from major distributors such as Red Hat, SuSE, Debian and Red Flag.

"By denying its customers the coverage, IBM is reducing Linux to a yard-sale operating system," DiDio said. "Even used cars come with limited warranties. IBM has world-class technology and a global services organization that is second to none. It is a driving force on every major standards committee, including the emerging Web Services market. However, when it comes to Linux indemnification, color Big Blue yellow!"

IBM spokesman Mike Darcy declined to comment on the case, which is expected to go to trial by 2005. He told that "IBM strongly believes there's no merit in SCO's claims and looks forward to trying its case in a court of law."

But in the meantime, Linux deployments will be hamstrung by an element of uncertainty, analysts say. That can't help efforts by Linux distributors to penetrate the government sector, which in many cases has to have its software deployments covered by warranties before signing on the dotted line.

Julie Giera, Research Fellow with Forrester Research's Giga division, has also chided IBM over the issue, even while she concedes that vendors such as IBM have a good reason to be hesitant on indemnification.

The "very nature of open source makes it extremely difficult for the vendor to ensure that all development of the open source platform has been accounted for, and that intellectual property is protected," she said.

"IBM's argument is that by its very nature, open source platforms could be changed (by the client, - for example) leaving vendors like IBM defending potential intellectual property liability claims for a platform or components they cannot control."

But still, "Big Blue cannot expect its customers to pay hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, for software that could someday be useless - or worse, software that could be a ticking time bomb of legal liability."

Gartner's George Weiss has also counseled caution to both sides as a result of the litigation. In a November note, he recommended that enterprise customers keep a low profile and not divulge details on Linux deployments. He also counseled clients not to pay SCO any license fees until the allegations are settled.

"Fence off the innocuous Linux deployments (such as network-edge solutions) from the performance-intensive ones. Where feasible, delay deployment of high-performance systems until the end of first quarter of 2004 to see what SCO will do," Weiss said.

Giera told that the indemnification issue risks getting lost in the passionate debate over the case.

"In all my years of writing about the technology industry, I've never seen anything like this," she said. "This has become such a highly charged, emotional issue that I think folks are losing sight of the practical issues."

Giera said she also certainly understands the anti-corporate feelings of the open source community.

"While open source is generally a good thing, I would have concerns about running a business on code that could be changed by anybody, anytime," she said. "Open source has its place in the enterprise among everything else that's out there. But I think the debate has become so emotionally charged that some technology and business management issues around open source are getting lost. At some point it's got to settle down."


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