2004 – Open Source Year in Review

    Blane Warrene

    The start of a new year is, of course, a time to look back and consider the year we’re wrapping up — and to prepare for the one ahead. In the technology world, this is happening at a frenzied pace as pundits seek to distill the past twelve months and possibly score big over the next twelve with a bull’s-eye prediction or two.

    My only prediction is more of a selfish wish — that the Apple iPod would become Bluetooth-enabled, include an 802.11b or g radio function and increase drive capacity to 120 GB. OS X could then be installed on it and the device would become a mobile computer that could link up with Bluetooth-enabled displays, keyboards and mice: a new killer notebook!

    2004 began somewhat frightfully for the open source community, as SCO ramped up what, at the time, looked to be serious legal action that could spell disaster for Linux users. We have since seen that, conspiracy theories on funding for the suits they filed aside, no death knell was sounded; instead, the open source world experienced an evolutionary period. Perhaps most surprisingly, we saw Microsoft tentatively join the open source world with a few small releases.

    Here are a few of what I see as significant movements in the Linux and open source world that will help advance interoperability and markets and win new “adopters” moving forward.

    Live Linux

    The year brought a vast expansion in the number of potential users as newcomers to Linux became able to explore the platform without going through an entire system build routine. Live CDs emerged and a variety of folks — from complete technical newbies, to seasoned veterans — booted up Linux from CD to see if they too could join the open source revolution.

    These CD-bootable images are valuable for both desktop users and server-side administrators. However, the Linux desktop may have been one of the biggest topics of the year. I personally believe we have a viable ‘Linux’ desktop in OS X, which will only become of real value if and when Apple releases a sub-$500 desktop box.

    The Linux desktop has become such a hot discussion topic that Robin Miller, editor-in-chief for the Open Source Technology Group, which includes the venerable Slashdot as well as Newsforge.com, Linux.com and Sourceforge.net, released Point and Click Linux. The book, aimed at any user seeking to discover Linux and open source, included the SimplyMEPIS live CD and installable distribution.

    While desktop discussions are primarily aimed at corporate end users, designers and developers who are new to Linux and are considering adding it to their portfolio will find the book and any of the live CDs invaluable for evaluation purposes.

    Rebirth of Novell

    The re-emergence of Novell as a serious player in the small-to-enterprise level software market was, in my opinion, the single biggest event of the year. To many, the Novell brand echoed a dusty old time when servers could run on pre-Pentium systems. However, the business world continues to associate the Novell name with stability, reliability and more. Anyone who spent any time administering Netware 4.11 will rave about uptime (in terms of months and even quarters).

    The fact that Novell joined the Linux fray with the acquisition of SUSE (Linux distribution) and Ximian (Linux desktop and MS Exchange server connector tools) let everyone know they were serious. This also opened the door for many in the Web business to reinitiate or begin to pitch Linux-based solutions to bigger customers.

    The company further legitimized itself by being the first to release enterprise Linux tools using the new 2.6 kernel — a move that showed the power of a development staff that’s in transition from the old Netware world to that of Linux. If the team can bring the power and simplicity of the company’s own OS to Linux, we should see big gains in usability. This should also open doors to all tiers, from small organizations to large, wherever businesses seek open source solutions.

    A Question of Security

    Operating system security is (or should be) of critical importance to us all. However, the varying levels of security required are different for each systems administrator.

    For those who seek enhanced, tightened security control over their Linux systems, SELinux may be the answer. Standing for Security-Enhanced Linux, SELinux is the result of research projects from the NSA (National Security Agency) in the US. It focuses on mandatory access controls that offer powerful control over users and devices, as well as applications and services.

    SELinux is released as a set of kernel patches that wraps into an existing Linux installation. The NSA states that it has tested the package successfully only on Red Hat.

    Databases Come of Age

    The database certainly came of age in 2004, not from a development or production perspective, but in terms of a blurring of the lines between commercial and open source vendors. Database solutions are now being benchmarked with indifference to their proprietary or non-proprietary nature. Rather, the focus is on performance, stability and scalability. Open source players like Firebird, MySQL and PostgreSQL continue to become legitimized in high-tension production environments.

    As formerly missing features on the open source side are integrated (including stored procedures, sub-selects, etc.) by way of maturing roadmaps, databases represent one sector of the application sphere where commoditization would be beneficial to developers. Now, if only commercial vendors could draw closer to pure ANSI SQL compliance.

    Copyright and Creative Commons

    Copyright has perhaps been one ongoing headache, as the Internet shifts away from being perceived as a new-fangled technology, to become simply another part of society. Questions over the fair use of just about any original content — physical or intellectual — have become serious, pressing issues.

    While consumers, companies and the courts battle out new case law and precedent to begin settling disputes, developers often stand by shell-shocked, not knowing what decisions to make during the design process.

    Creative Commons hopes to change that by advocating a powerful, new mechanism for publishing original works. The spill-off benefit is a new search resource for those seeking content (audio, images, text and video) for designs and other Web projects, through which one can legally incorporate another creator’s original works in various forms and fashions.

    The licenses are form-fitted for modern content, as shown below in an excerpt from an earlier column on copyright:

    Choosing a Creative Commons license does not forfeit your copyright; rather, it simplifies the process by pre-approving the usage of one’s content. The organization offers four types of licenses:

    1. Attribution: Others are authorized to copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work, and derivative works based upon it, but only if they provide attribution to your authorship.
    2. Noncommercial: Others are authorized to copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work, and derivative works based upon it, but for noncommercial purposes only.
    3. No Derivative Works: Others are authorized to copy, distribute, display, and perform only exact copies of your work, and no derivative works based upon the original authorship.
    4. Share Alike: You authorize others to distribute any derivative works only under a license identical to the license that covers your authored works (similar to open source software licensing).
    The New GNU 2005

    The Free Software Foundation, led by open source champion Richard Stallman, is planning to revamp the GNU General Public License in 2005, in what will be the first revision in thirteen years. As the digital world has pushed dated laws and legal philosophy to breaking point, license authors are also being forced to reassess the stability and applicability of their premises and text.

    The FSF seeks to retain the framework and intent of the GPL, but is addressing global shifts in copyright and patent practices.

    After a period of public comment, the organization will finalize and release a new license. This should be a boon not only to existing license users but will perhaps also open the door for hesitant open source users to step forward and begin to explore its use.

    A New Frontier

    There are several steps to be taken in the near future of open source — steps that could have any number of effects. As Linux becomes more commercially viable, there will be forks in the path of its evolution that may change the nature of at least some portions of the open source world.

    Will the open source environment maintain its inherently collaborative nature if billions of dollars begin pouring into the coffers and competition becomes more heated?

    Linux and the entire open source sphere have surely joined the day-to-day world of technology at all levels, and have forever modified the landscape we work in. My hope is that interoperability and collaboration will begin to seed itself on a larger scale between open and closed platforms, by way of global standards.