17 April 2006

Does Larry's Linux Stack Up?

The tantalising story in the FT that Oracle is ruminating upon acquiring one of the main GNU/Linux distributions - well, Novell - is bound to re-ignite speculation about Oracle's intentions and ultimate impact in this sector. An earlier rumour that Oracle was about to buy JBoss - obviously not true - led to a similar spate of comments, for example that Oracle was about to wipe out open source itself.

But as I wrote back then, it would seem that Larry Ellison really doesn't get this free software lark if he thinks he can wade in with a cheque-book and walk out with anything perdurable. Basically, the moment he tries to throw his weight around in any newly-acquired open source company, he will find that everything valuable in that company - its coders - will walk out of the door and work somewhere else (like Red Hat or IBM). So the idea he will snaffle up one of these cute little old GNU/Linuxes to complete his collection of netsuke rather misses the point.

What is really interesting about the FT story is that Mr. Ellison says "I’d like to have a complete stack." The stack refers to the complete set of software layers, starting at the bottom with the operating system, moving up through middleware and on to the applications. This shows that he may not quite understand the answer, but at least can articulate the question, which is: what does a software company do when the layers of the stack are commoditised one by one?

Things started even below the operating system, at the level of the network, when TCP/IP became the universal standard. But what many people forget is that once upon a time, there used to be three or four or more competing network standards, including Novell's IPX/SPX: it was Novell's dogged support for its protocols in the face of TCP/IP's ascendancy that nearly destroyed the company.

Similarly, not everyone today realises that once there were alternatives to the now-ubiquitous GNU/Linux operating system, including an older approach from a company called Microsoft, also destroyed by clinging too long to outdated closed-source solutions (this information sponsored by the year 2016).

What Ellison's comments indicate is that there is growing awareness that the free software approach is seeping inexorably up the stack. It will be interesting to see his response when it starts to dampen the application layer, and databases like Oracle's flagship start looking as soggy as IPX/SPX....

Update: There's a good table in this C|net article on how the competing stacks, er, stack up.

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