Industry Leader Q&A with the Linux Foundation's Jim Zemlin

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The Linux Foundation is a nonprofit consortium dedicated to fostering the growth of Linux. Here, Jim Zemlin, executive director, talks with the IBM LinuxLine about the mission of the Linux Foundation, common misconceptions, and the unique value proposition the open source operating system  provides in the enterprise. 

LinuxLine: Describe the Linux Foundation-what exactly do you do?

Zemlin: The Linux Foundation's mission is to facilitate the growth of the Linux platform; both as an industry benefit and for social good. We believe that platform software should be developed in an open fashion with equal access to all, which is a social benefit. We also believe that by benefiting industry with the best software in the world we can reinforce the former goal: Linux is a multi-billion dollar industry today. Specifically we serve as the home to Linux creator Linus Torvalds, which ensures that the person at the center of Linux development is at a neutral home and is unfettered by the short term goals of the market. In addition, we provide resources to ensure that the development process runs smoothly. Just as the code development is shared, we provide shared financial, legal, and technical support to all the participants in the Linux development process. We employ the people who keep running, we have a large legal defense fund for the platform, we create standards for Linux, and we have technical workgroups that improve the platform. We provide events for the community and industry to meet, and we work with our members to target new opportunities for Linux growth.

LinuxLine: What's the most common misconception about the Linux Foundation's mission?

Zemlin: Some people think that we create the "roadmap" for Linux or that somehow we control the development process. That is a misconception not only about the Foundation but the very nature of the development process itself. Linux is a collective and priorities get created based on code contributions and their relative technical merit depending on computing needs at any given point in time. This is far more efficient than a roadmap that could quickly be obsolete. To clear this misconception up we created a "Linux weather forecast" authored by a brilliant guy named Jon Corbett who tells you where the winds are blowing in Linux rather than a roadmap.

LinuxLine: What is the Linux Standard Base and why is it so important?

Zemlin: The Linux Standard Base (the LSB) prevents fragmentation of the Linux platform. The great thing about Linux is that anyone can call any kernel-derived OS "Linux" and the bad thing about Linux is that anyone can call any kernel derived OS "Linux." Many different versions of Linux make it more difficult for software developers to write to the platform and enjoy the network effects they see on rival platforms. In order to maintain a more cohesive platform, our organization works with the various different Linux distribution providers to create an agreed set of components that will be present on all the different versions of Linux. This has greatly reduced fragmentation in the market, made the lives of software developers targeting the platform simpler, and enabled the platform to grow more quickly.

LinuxLine: How does the Linux Foundation view organizations that use Linux while not contributing to the projects?

Zemlin: In the end, if we are patient, they always will. Nobody wants to maintain their own separate version of the Linux kernel. It always pays in the long run to contribute back. IBM is perhaps the best example of a company that understood this long ago and invested massive resources contributing code to Linux that both they and their competitors shared. What IBM got in return was a multi-billion-dollar operating system and a multi-tens-of-billion-dollar market opportunity. As more of industry utilizes Linux to create products and services, this will serve as a great example as to how to succeed with open source and Linux.

LinuxLine: Linux experienced explosive growth leading up to the global downturn-why?

Zemlin: It is simple: better value. Linux is priced right. Linux has a competitive economy with dozens of organizations offering support at almost every possible price and service level you can imagine. Linux runs on more architectures, across more devices, and across more markets segments of computing than any other platform in history.

LinuxLine: Do you think Linux has benefited during the recession?

Zemlin: Absolutely. You don't have to take my word for it though. IDC recently needed to restate their market forecasts mid-year, increasing the growth number for Linux as a reaction to the recession. Forrester Research recently ran a CIO study that cited open source as the number-one IT priority across all organizations-ahead of business intelligence, SOA, etc. Recessions tend to accentuate preexisting trends. When times are tough, you focus on value and Linux provides that in spades. Low cost, competitive services, no vendor lock in, superior performance, architecture flexibility, a huge trained work force; there is no platform that can compete on all of those metrics at the scale Linux does today.

LinuxLine: The Linux Foundation has a global scope, so where (geographically) do you see the most opportunity for Linux?

Zemlin: We see opportunity globally in places like Eastern Europe, India, and Asia. We also see growth in new categories of computing such as mobile internet devices, netbooks, web tablets, mobile phones, embedded devices, automotive infotainment, etc. It is exciting to see how pervasive Linux is becoming.

LinuxLine: What will Linux be like in 5-10 years?

Zemlin: The next big thing after Linux is going to be Linux. Linux is young. At 18 it is barely old enough to drink. Compare this to its 40-year-old Unix brethren. In the last 10 years we saw Linux go from near-zero share in supercomputing to 90% today. It is the fastest growing OS in server computing and the fastest growing OS in mobile computing.

Because Linux is flexible, because Linux is a self-forming community of developers, and because it is supported by so many devices and computing architectures, it will continue to dominate every category of computing for decades. Linux has proven itself in the server and high performance computing world and is at the beginning of moving to dominate embedded systems, consumer electronic devices, mobile phones, and desktop computing. Linux will continue to evolve and adapt as the very nature of computing changes. Most recently the trend toward cloud computing is an excellent example of how Linux was able to quickly adapt to be the optimal virtualized platform for the cloud. The fact that 90% of Amazon's cloud is running Linux servers is testimony to that.