Feature

Open source lives

Despite falling share prices, open source companies are continuing to innovate

Last week's feature painted rather a gloomy picture of the free software world, and might have suggested that open source was just a fad. But the setbacks listed are really no more than a reflection of the general dotcom malaise.

In fact, the open source world is alive and well, as evidenced by numerous new and thriving projects. Many of these come from relatively unknown players, but even Red Hat, one of the best established open source firms, has been branching out into new fields.

For example, last year it launched its high-performance Web server, Tux. More recently, it has created an open source e-commerce suite. Like Tux, the suite is freely available for download - Red Hat aims to make its money selling support and consultancy.

One important part of the e-commerce suite is the Red Hat database. This is also open source, being based on the well-known free software PostgreSQL. Nor is Red Hat the only company hoping to provide some competition for Oracle in the same way that GNU/Linux has challenged Microsoft Windows.

Another is Great Bridge, which has the backing of Red Hat's original investor, as well as a sizeable chunk of the PostgreSQL development team. Better-established in the database world is MySQL. This entered the open source mainstream in June 2000, when it adopted the GNU general public license.

One popular use of databases in the online context is to populate Web templates. Microsoft's Active Server Pages led the way here, but the open source technology PHP, which was originally an acronym for Personal Home Page, but now stands for PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor, is increasingly popular. Support is available from the company Zend.

One open source package that uses PHP (along with Apache and MySQL) is the Midgard content management system. Also open source, but with full commercial backing, is Zope. This draws heavily on the open source programming language Python, and the company recently took on Python's creator, Guido van Rossum, as director of its PythonLabs, along with most of the Python development team.

Another company supporting Python is ActiveState. This began by writing versions of Perl for Windows, and now has an impressive range of products built around open source software.

But all of this activity by new companies is dwarfed by the increasing commitment of IBM. Although its GNU/Linux home page looks modest enough, the figures that IBM chief Lou Gerstner was throwing around at the end of last year ( www.ibm.com/lvg/1212.phtml) are not. He spoke of investing $1bn in GNU/Linux this year, and having 1,500 IBM developers dedicated to the area.

Further proof of not just IBM's activity, but the progress of GNU/Linux in recent years is provided by the announcement of the Distributed Terascale Facility. This computing grid consists of four interconnected GNU/Linux clusters that will be capable of performing 11.6 trillion calculations a second.

What is truly breathtaking about this facility is not so much the fact that it was possible to use open source software to create such phenomenal computing power: rather it is that IBM was prepared to bet its reputation not on something it had created and tested rigorously itself, but on a motley collection of software put together by a bunch of hackers around the world during the past 15 years.

Next week: Grid computing

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This was first published in August 2001

 

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