LSB -- Can It Help Network Managers Cope with Linux?
An emerging standard called Linux Standard Base (LSB) is getting lots of play lately as a boon to software developers. If all goes as planned, though, network managers could start benefiting, too, possibly as early as the end of this year.
Linux continues to draw criticism for its interoperability, scalability, and usability issues. Still, however, growing numbers of large organizations are working with Linux, including Amazon.com, eTrade, and the University of Wisconsin, to name a few.
Way back in the year 2000, Linux held a 27-percent market share of new licenses for software operating environments, versus 41 percent for Microsoft Windows NT/2000; 17 percent for Novell NetWare; and 13.5 percent for "combined Unix," according to IDC.
"It's reasonable to assume that many network managers are now dealing with Linux, especially those who are already dealing with Unix," says Al Gillen, IDC's research director for system software. Even if your company isn't using Linux yet, it might be soon.
So what's the LSB buzz about? Linux software vendors, OEMs and ISVs are promoting LSB as a way of gaining a unified platform for the many different branded collections, or "distributions," of Linux.
At the end of last month, the Free Standards Group, author of the specs, released the first major rev of the standard, LSB 1.1. Top execs for four of the leading Linux vendors -- Caldera, Red Hat, Turbolinux, and SuSE -- said they will ship products complying with LSB 1.1 by the end of 2002.
Other big LSB backers include IBM, Sun, Oracle, Dell and Compaq. Also contributing are groups such as the The Debian Project; MandrakeSoft; Linux for PowerPC; Linuxcare; VA Linux; The Open Group; Software in the Public Interest, and The USENIX Association.
"Right now, Linux is a component of an infrastructure. It's typically used on a Web server or a print/file server, for example. Companies who are looking at deploying Linux as an application server -- for ERP or CRM, for instance -- are those that will be most interested in LSB," says IDC's Gillen.
Members of the standards group freely admit that LSB is geared mainly to making more commercial software applications available on Linux servers.
"Every ISV I've talked to has known the pain and suffering of trying to port applications to multiple distributions of Linux," says John Terpstra, a Linux evangelist at Caldera.
Benefits for Networkers
Linux vendors also see pluses for network managers, though, and so do some administrators. Tony Hammond, a systems administrator at the University of Wisconsin, thinks standardization would help solve problems like those he now faces in porting Cluster In A Box from a Red Hat distribution to Linux from Scratch; a project that provides the necessary steps to build your own custom Linux system.
"The idea (behind LSB) is that if everything is in a standard place, applications will be portable from one distribution to the next," concurs Nathan Walp, a Virginia-based systems administrator and developer. Walp has worked with Windows and Solaris as well as the Red Hat, Debian, SuSE, and Slackware distributions of Linux.
"LSB will be good for administrators because everyone has their own personal taste. People will be able to use whatever distribution of Linux they want, while still being able to (easily) run applications," Walp predicts.
As others see it, LSB will make it easier for network managers to avail themselves of open source code and Linux's relatively low cost of ownership.
"With Linux becoming more standardized, network managers can choose Linux over other operating environments, without feeling like they're being locked into a single distributor," maintains Marjo Murcato, senior director of solutions at Turbolinux.
Specifically, LSB will help network managers most by specifying common locations for software libraries, observers say. LSB also specifies shared system commands and a files systems hierarchy. FHS (Filesystem Hierarchy Standard) is used for arranging libraries, commands, and files.
"Otherwise, with the variety of Linux platforms out there, network managers would have to spend a lot of time writing scripts. In Linux, the location of files can differ from distribution to distribution," says Peter Beckman, VP of engineering at Turbolinux.
Although corporate developers produce custom Linux applications, network managers end up doing most of the tweaking needed for running Linux apps on LANs and WANs, Beckman says. In some smaller implementations, though, Linux developers can still end up pulling double duty as systems administrators.
Currently, Linux applications are certified to specific Linux distributions. If administrators try to run an app on a different distribution, -- or across multiple distributions used by various departments -- they might need to write scripts for file maintenance, security features, or the configuration files used in changing user passwords, for example.
"I've had to write scripts for where the configuration files are located. I've also modified some of the source code, to make Linux act more like Solaris," Hammond says.
The University of Wisconsin is in the process of clustering Linux from Scratch servers, for operating high performance scientific and math applications on a mainframe system.
Walp predicts that standardization will also make it easier for administrators to take over from each other in managing Linux servers, if an administrator gets overloaded with work or leaves the company, for instance.
"Boxes are administrators' 'babies.' Administrators set up Linux servers in dramatically different ways. If there's a standard way of doing things, a new person can take over more quickly," he says.
Fixing security holes might get faster, too. "With LSB, the same security patch can be used for all distributions of Linux," according to Murcato.
Over the years, though, Linux standardization has walked a rough road. Red Hat and Debian, the original founders of the Linux Compatibility Standards (LCS) Project, arrived on the LSB scene later than some other vendors, teaming up with the LSB Project in 1998.
The LSB Project, in turn, joined with the Linux Internationalization Initiative (lil8nux), a group spearheaded by Turbolinux, under the bigger umbrella of the Free Standards Group. The LSB standard is based on software reference libraries from Caldera.
Red Hat refused to support LSB 1.0, the predecessor to 1.1. Engineers at Red Hat this week pointed to 1.0's lack of a "test suite and certification method" as the reason why.
Then, after the release of LSB 1.0 in June of 2001, some Debian administrators and developers became incensed that the standard specifies RPM as the way for packaging/unpackaging Linux applications. Many of them prefer Debian's DEB method.
"Some people didn't listen to the intent of the specification," responds Caldera's Terpstra. "We're trying to find the 'lowest common denominator.' We specified RPM because of the prevalence of ISV applications that use RPM. Also, every commercial distribution of Linux has a mechanism for unpackaging RPM. Alien (a Debian application) can unpackage RPM."
Other Debian administrators and developers, though, apparently understood the standard group's reasoning. "Yes, we all dislike RPM for our own reasons. However, the decision that the LSB made does make sense. The LSB is not meant to help you or me. It is meant to help companies support Linux," wrote one user, in an Internet news group posting.
Beyond putting in a new test suite, LSB 1.1 cleans up some software interfaces, adds new interfaces, and includes more details about header contents. Also in January, the Free Standards Group released version 1.0 of lil8nix, a standard for internationalization and localization based on code from Turbolinux.
Meanwhile, Red Hat and SuSE -- two companies that previously focused more on small businesses -- have started to try to line up with Caldera and Turbolinux in the enterprise network space.
From a network management perspective, the timetable for LSB 1.1 compliance is the biggest issue. Network managers won't really stand to gain till standards-compliant distributions and applications are widely available.
The LSB 1.1 specification and test suite are now downloadable from the Free Standards Group's Web site at http://www.freestandards.org . "So far, every Linux distribution has failed the test suite on some measure. As soon as a distribution passes the test suite, the certification process will be documented and released," Terpstra says.
Group members say they're confident, though, about reaching compliance and interoperability across Linux distributions. According to Terpstra, "Hundreds of organizations have been working on this. The hard work is done. Now, we're just hammering out the fleas."
Jacqueline Emigh (pronounced "Amy") is a 12-year veteran of computer journalism. She is currently freelancing for several leading technology and business publications. She was previously a senior editor for Sm@rt Partner Magazine, and before that, a bureau chief for Newsbytes News Network.