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Enterprise Unix Roundup: Another Day, Another Acquisition, Another Defense Fund

By Michael Hall (Send Email)
Posted Jan 16, 2004


If you sense an expectant hush in the air this week, it's probably because next week will see another LinuxWorld Expo descend on New York City. We expect that with the recent release of a new kernel and the ongoing (angry) buzz SCO continues to generate, this year's East Coast LWE, which is traditionally the more staid of the semi-annual, bi-coastal event, will probably seem a little more busy. With another defense fund and a just-finalized Linux acquisition for Novell, next week's LinuxWorld Expo is looking very deja vu; a Novell-owned SUSE is changing the enterprise Linux landscape; and we explain the whys and wherefores of the vi (and vim) text editor.

Nearly six months ago, we considered the West Coast event and noted the frenetic back-and-forth of SCO-inspired activity: Red Hat launched a lawsuit alleging SCO's suit against IBM was damagingly misleading about Linux's legal status and announced a $1 million fund aimed at defending open source developers accused of infringing on SCO's intellectual property.

Novell also got some notice at that time by announcing its purchase of Ximian, which seemed like a cautious foray into Linux-land based around the good fit between Ximian's Outlook-like Evolution and Novell's Groupwise.

Six months later, rolling into another LWE, there's another defense fund, and Novell's second Linux acquisition has been finalized.

The Open Source Development Lab, an Oregon-based consortium of technology companies ranging from embedded outfits like MontaVista and Wind River to giants like Intel, Fujitsu, and (of course) IBM, has announced a $10 million defense fund to defray the legal expenses of Linux users involved in legal action with SCO over the company's alleged right to licensing fees for Linux.

The move is likely frustrating for SCO, as it will probably find that some smaller companies that might have rolled over more quickly on the question of whether to pay for the right to use Linux for fear of draining litigation will be more willing to face the company down, or at least take their chances that the (repeatedly) promised litigation might never come. Since as long as SCO is leaving the issue of proof of its claims to the resolution of its suit against IBM, we can see the motivation for taking that risk.

As it turns out, SCO's threat letters are starting to have an effect. Intel, which was happy to have its name up front as an early donor to the fund, might not have had a horse in the race had it not received a letter from SCO, and, according to a spokesman, not refused Linux developers a chance to provide a remedy.

Going into 2004, SCO's looking more and more alone in the world.

Novell this week announced the finalization of its acquisition of SUSE, the German Linux company, and its own intent to indemnify SUSE users against legal action over intellectual property issues.

In perhaps not unrelated news where the SUSE/Novell deal is concerned, Sun may be casting about for yet another version of Linux to offer its customers.

In a brief interview with Infoworld, Sun's Jonathan Schwartz said the company is considering dropping SUSE, which it sells as part of its Java Desktop System, because the company is "a little bit disappointed with SUSE's performance in the marketplace," and called the idea that Sun might be dusting off its own Linux distribution (yes, the same distribution Red Hat drove from the market) "interesting."

SUSE's Joe Eckert expressed polite confusion at Schwartz's comments, but it seems pretty clear to us: SUSE's no longer a cuddly, obscure, also-ran Linux company. It's a wholly owned subsidiary of Novell, which pushes a lot of competing product. Sun's not a big iron company anymore, and it can't afford to put money in the pockets of its competitors down in the lower reaches of the enterprise space -- which is exactly what a resurgent Novell is.

In Other News

  • Microsoft decided to release Windows Services for Unix (SFU) 3.5 as a gratis download instead of the previous charge of $99 per copy. Just last month, the company announced a similar giveaway of SFU 3.0, which we tagged as a pump-primer for the new, improved version. Turns out we were wrong, and the product is now plain old free of charge no matter which version you're interested in. We're entertained to note that there's a prominent link to Microsoft's new "Get the Facts About Linux" site on the download page.
  • SGI announced the SGI Altix 350, a midrange Itanium/Linux combo aimed at being a department-level server for scientific, technical, and design organizations. The machine can scale up to 4-way processing and costs between $12,199 and $21,599. We were intrigued to note an SGI marketing manager's mention that the company is "planning to optimize on SUSE in the near future," further indication that Red Hat's decision to drop its Red Hat Linux product line in favor of costlier "advanced" and "enterprise" offerings may cost the company in a few markets.

Security Roundup

  • Several distributors have reported patches to tcpdump, a network traffic analyzer. The bug isn't particularly dangerous on its own, but it could allow a malicious user to cause a tcpdump session to crash.
  • A bug has turned up in the revision control software package CVS that could allow files to be written outside the CVS file tree. Red Hat and Debian both announced patches. More are sure to follow in the next few weeks.
  • A denial of service vulnerability based on a flaw in how SSL connections are handled has been uncovered in the Jabber instant messaging server.

Unix Bookshelf

We were going to recommend a specific book this week, then we thought better of it, because our choice was less about the merits of the book and more about what the book teaches. So this week's book recommendation to continue the process of rounding out your Unix bookshelf is this: Get one about the vi editor. We're happy to recommend either O'Reilly's excellent "Learning the vi Editor," which has a conversational, pleasant tone and the benefit of a woodcut of a cute tarsier on the cover, or the much larger "Vi IMproved - Vim" by New Riders, which not only has the benefit of being a more thorough book about a much nicer version of vi than the original, but also has a free online edition.

The reason for this recommendation is simple. Two things have not changed in quite a few years of Unix computing: 1) the periodic need to run a text editor to get something important done, and 2) the ubiquity of vi.

If you've just never crossed this particular issue, you might be wondering why you'd need a book about vi at all. After all, you're probably familiar with Notepad on Windows systems, or Textedit on Macintoshes, or maybe even Pico from your time using Pine as an e-mail client at a university. A text editor's a text editor, right? It's for when a word processor is overkill.

Unfortunately, vi's not quite that simple. In fact, it's infuriatingly complex compared to simple "just start typing" editors, and may well be the only editor you ever encounter that specifically does not allow you to "just start typing," because you have to press "i" first to get it into insert mode.

Lest we seem like we're running vi down to no good end, we'll also point out that it's a remarkably powerful tool once you get to know it. A proficient vi user can accomplish a lot with a very few keystrokes.

But it's not vi's power that makes it a necessary tool to understand, it's that vi is everywhere on even the most stripped down and basic systems. If you ever encounter a dying Unix box with nothing more than a rescue disk, or if you ever find yourself at the console of a strange Unix machine, vi will probably be there.

This column is prepared each week on Emacs, which automatically makes us the mortal enemy of vi fans. That ought to be comment enough on how serious we are on this recommendation. Even if we think vi people are crazy to use it in anything other than an emergency.

Tips of the Trade

In keeping with the vi theme, we have two tips this week.

The first tip is pretty simple: get vim (which stands for "vi IMproved"). It's free, it's extensible, it's supported by an enthusiastic user community, and it's often the default version of vi on many Linux systems. In addition to vim's standard text shell incarnation, there's a graphical version. Some of vim's nicer features include syntax highlighting, macro recording, a command history, and undo/redo commands.

Our second tip will help you learn your way around vim (and vi) if you don't feel up to going out and getting one of those books we recommended: Use vim's built-in tutorial. Just install vim and run the command vimtutor, which will provide you with a 30-minute-long crash course on how to accomplish the basics. It won't make you a vim master, but it will help ensure that if ever you find yourself in front of an alien Unix box without your preferred text editor, you'll have a grasp of vi, which will almost certainly be there.

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