The Cathedral and the Bizarre

Several years ago, open source theorist Eric Raymond released a well-known essay extolling the virtues of open source, comparing traditional, vendor-lead proprietary software development—the “cathedral”—against the more populist open source model—the “bazaar.” Raymond argued that, what looked on the surface to be a more chaotic approach to development—open source—was actually more efficient than its supposedly more orderly vendor-based proprietary counterpart.

Until now, the IT world could easily dismiss these arguments as leftovers of the 60s generation. Open source did have a sort of free love utopian air to it, with its ideals that anybody could make software as long as they contributed it to the communal good.

What IT manager that wants to keep his or her job could afford to take the notion of ownerless software seriously? When it’s 3am, and your server blows up, the idea of a vendor’s warm proprietary embrace sounds a lot more comforting, because at least, somebody takes responsibility for the code.

So why are household names like IBM, Intel, Compaq, and Dell making big noises about their Linux strategies? To be blunt: It’s the reliability, stupid. An interesting survey conducted by IBM and Oracle found that 55% of all Linux resellers came out of the NT world, with another 18% coming out of the NetWare community.

Although Linux true believers still talk about clients, for now, it’s the back end that’s making waves. The experiences of Linux pioneers, who generally locked their servers away back room cabinets, rebooting them at most once or twice a year, is beginning to make real impressions on vendors pressed to deliver lower cost-of-ownership solutions. Not surprisingly, the idea sounds quite enticing to weary LAN administrators tired of constant fire fighting.

At the LinuxWorld conference, the announcement of the 2.4 kernel’s timetable (maybe in the next 6 months), or the latest dot releases from the major distributors, was the least of the news. Instead, pay attention to the expanding array of 24 x 7 support programs from IBM, Compaq, and HP that are aimed at changing the misconception that nobody’s responsible for open source software.

Maybe open source process encourages more frequent updates to the kernel. Maybe talk from the Linus Torvalds of the world about “the good fragmentation” that comes with Linux sounds overly chaotic to administrators worried about avoiding another crash from undocumented or unsupported code. But if you stick with a major Linux distributor and platform provider, you won’t be worrying about which release kernel is the absolute latest. Your updates will be controlled by the vendor’s schedule. It will become, in effect, like choosing whether you want the latest SAP R/3 update or if you’ll wait for the next major dot release. Maybe the bazaar won’t seem so bizarre after all.