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Enterprise Unix Roundup: Open Source Glue

By Michael Hall (Send Email)
Posted Aug 28, 2003


It's popular among Windows-centric yet Linux friendly commentators to magnanimously note the usefulness of Linux (and its cousins in the BSD family) as "glue" operating systems. This is usually meant as a compliment: While Windows chugs along on the desktops, perhaps even running public Web servers and Exchange, Linux- and BSD-based systems are often ensconced in the odd infrastructural jobs. Perhaps they're handling DNS, providing some file services, managing a print queue or two, or driving internal documentation servers. Hence, glue: the stuff that holds things together.

Michael Hall explains why and how Linux is the 'cultural glue' for the Unix world. He also discusses SGI's layoff announcement and partnership with SuSE, SCO's mystery licensee, and Apple's bite of Linux. Sendmail, unzip, and bitkeeper all cited vulnerabilities this week, and the overview of regexps continues with a look at alternation.

By expansively relegating open source software to the "glue" roles, debates over which operating system to use are little less heated, keep everyone looking open-minded, and offer senior managers a chance to let the nerds down in the server closet exercise the urge to play with their favorite toy well out of sight.

In many ways, though, it's clear that Linux has become a sort of "cultural glue" for the Unix world. Take Sun's new desktop, for example.

Mad Hatter, as we've previously noted, is Sun's attempt to create a secure corporate desktop with all the trimmings. Sun is still struggling with some "not invented here" (NIH) pride issues when it says the browser it will include is "based on code from mozilla.org" (near as we can tell, the browser is pretty much Mozilla with a different throbber). The desktop environment itself is GNOME, and the mail client Sun is touting is Ximian's Evolution. The office suite will most assuredly be Sun's own StarOffice/OpenOffice.

It would be inaccurate to characterize all of this software as "Linux apps," since they have appeared on several Unix variants over the years in fully capable form. But GNOME and Evolution are closely tied to Linux historically, as reactions to its rise in popularity, but they lack of good end-user functionality. Netscape's punt in establishing the Mozilla project was a similar reaction to the Linux explosion.

We aren't going to claim the Linux community invented the modern open source Unix desktop, but it's a safe assumption that without Linux and its immense mindshare, the apps we've just named wouldn't be as far along as they are. Far enough along, that is, to be viable to package up and sell for money to the likes of Sun. Viable enough that with Mad Hatter and the latest emphasis on GNOME in the mainline Solaris releases, Sun is entertaining a truly new desktop for the first time since some time in the 1980s.

So what do we mean by "cultural glue" then? Only that, as we noted last week, when things like the SCO assault on Linux come up, there's more to the whole thing than an operating system one might think of as useful but scruffy. One reader wrote in to hammer us on our attention to the SCO case, but Linux is where much what's interesting and new in the Unix world is happening. Today's younger Unix admin probably cut his teeth on Linux long before anyone entrusted him with a production machine. Many Unix coders probably first learned their trade on Linux boxes.

If the brick wall SCO erected to stop Linux's momentum in its tracks actually manages to hold, it will take a delusional leap of faith of the most absurd extremes to imagine SCO's offerings will carry the Unix world forward. That will fall to Sun and IBM, and it's clear that where cultural glue is concerned, their relationship to Linux is more than a little sticky.

If you follow Unix closely, follow Linux: It's where things are going.

In Other News
  • Is Hewlett Packard SCO's mystery licensee? We can't be sure, but a report credited to ShannonKnowsHPC says the company is more than a little confident when it asserts that it has no infringement issues, despite having more than 3,000 Linux boxes running internally.
  • Linux advocates have made much of several analyses of the source code SCO has shown over the past few weeks that indicate some of it might not be as much of a trade secret as SCO claims. Unix founding father Ken Ritchie claims to remember writing and annotating some of the code SCO's shown as proof of its case some time in the 1970s.
  • Apple showed that where Linux is concerned, it's a little stuck, too: The latest developer pre-release of OS X 10.3 (build 7B44), has switched shells, from the venerable tcsh to bash. Some observers think the move is reflective of the massive popularity of bash as the default shell for most Linux distributions.
  • SGI and SuSE have partnered up to make SuSE Linux Enterprise Sever 8 an option for enterprises deploying SGI Altix 3000 servers and superclusters.
  • SGI announced that it's laying off 600 more workers (for a total of 1,000 since May). The company's moving away from Irix, its own Unix derivative, and the MIPS architecture in favor of Intel-based systems and Linux. The company noted that things look promising for its Linux-based SGI Altix line of superclusters and servers.

  • Perhaps the best thing to come out of the SCO/IBM circus is this riff on the Nigerian scam spam.

Security Roundup

Another slow week for security news in the Unix world, but we caught a few items of interest:

  • Sendmail 8.12.8 and earlier (in the 8.12 series) have a bug that could allow sendmail to be crashed, with the attendant problems that could create. OpenBSD 3.2 reportedly has the bug (and requires patching), as do FreeBSD and several releases of Mandrake Linux.
  • A problem with the utility unzip that could allow a local user to overwrite a file in almost any directory (maliciously altering, for example, a configuration file) is still showing up in recent patches. Check your vendor.
  • bitkeeper, a popular source code management tool, is apparently insecure in its default configuration. Follow this link for information on how to secure the software through next week, when a permanent fix will be announced.

Tips of the Trade

Just a quick tip this week as we continue to nibble at regular expressions (regexps): alternation. One of the things that makes regexps so great is that you can frame them as "either/or" using the pipe (|) character. For example, suppose you're looking for an occurences of either www.yahoo.com or www.google.com in a server log. This expression ought to do the trick:

cat /var/log/apache/access.log|grep "www.\(yahoo\|google\).com"

You aren't just limited to two choices, either. You can stack up as many as you like:

cat /var/log/apache/access.log|grep "\(iprimus\|covad\|swbell\).net"|less

That's all we've got space for this week. Next week we'll be back with more on the topic of regular expressions, showing how to use them in conjunction with programs like sed to alter the contents of files.

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