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Red Hat Launches Projects for Collaboration, Code Testing

Corrected: June 5, 2006

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

Commercial Linux distributor Red Hat is hosting its Red Hat Summit for customers and partners in Nashville, Tennessee, this week, and Matthew Szulik, the company's chairman and chief executive officer, used his keynote address to talk a little bit about the way that the open source community is fostering the ideals of democracy and transparency and to announce some new open source projects aimed at both commercial enterprises and individual consumers.

Szulik started his keynote address by reminding everyone how far Linux has come in the past decade. In 1996, the Linux 2.0 kernel was just coming out, and there was not a KDE or Gnome graphical user interface for the operating system. Linux was not yet on the corporate radar, and in fact, the Internet had just the year before exploded into commercial reality. Linux has been the standard bearer of the open source community, and Red Hat, like many Linux companies, has always known that Linux would just be the first phase.

Szulik sees open source not just as a business, but as a way to change the world, a belief that many of his colleagues and competitors in the open source software business share. "I think that members of the open source community continue to drive social change," said Szulik. "I don't think the work is finished, though." But, Szulik clearly thinks that open source, in the end, will be the way that software is created and consumed. "The historical competitors to open source have competed against each other as corporate identities," Szulik explained. "Now, it is very difficult to compete against a worldwide, open, collaborative community."

As he was wrapping up his keynote, Szulik put the situation plainly. "Our goal is to continue to drive this notion of the democratization of content. We can't do that by ourselves," he said, meaning that we all need to be active, whether or not we are Linux gurus. To make his point, Szulik reminded us that in the 2004 presidential election in the United States, more people got their information about the candidates and the issues during the election from the Internet--not from paper newspapers, television, or radio. And, Szulik said, the top ten blogs on the Internet at the time were focused on political issues. He does not see this as an accident, but a symptom of a yearning for truth that many of us have. And he put Red Hat squarely in the middle of this democratization. "You think less about a thing called 'brand' and more about something I call 'reputation capital.'"

That is perhaps a good explanation as to why Red Hat has devoted resources to a project it launched today called Mugshot, which is a set of open source "social networking" software that is meant to give end users who have no experience of open source software (as if you could experience the difference between closed and open source software once it is compiled) a taste of what is possible and proof that open source software can be relevant to normal people, not just to their children, hard-core nerds, and corporations looking to save some money.

Mugshot is focused on profiling the music and other entertainment interests of its subscribers and to allow them to collaborate on entertainment issues. Mugshot is what Red Hat calls a science project, which means it is a work in progress, and it is also an example of a mashup, which is Webspeak for a hybrid Web application that creates a new kind of service from a collection of other Web applications. For instance, the program allows you to automatically publish you iTunes play list to a MySpace profile (which means people can then mock you or imitate you, depending on your tastes).

The Mugshot code includes a client that can run on Linux or Windows machines (with limited support for Mac OS X) and has a server side program that does instant messaging between Mugshot subscribers as well as creating a "link swarm" that shows popular links among Mugshot users and how they change over time. The software is meant to interface with MySpace, Flikr, iTunes, Yahoo Music, and music download sites--not to compete with them.

Red Hat is making the client and server code behind Mugshot available under an open source license. The code has been opened up to the people who attended Red Hat Summit and whoever can get logged on to the service first; it is in an early release phase, which means Red Hat wants input from this initial Mugshot community to further drive development. Havoc Pennington, principal software engineer at Red Hat who was chairman of the Gnome foundation a number of years ago and who has been instrumental in Red Hat's desktop initiatives, is the chief architect of the Mugshot project. "There's no reason why we can't bring open source to more people," he said in the keynote. "People are more interested in other people than they are in a virtual file cabinet," he said, referring to the old way we think about PCs. "We are interested in exploring the intersection of software and democracy."

Red Hat is not interested in charging for the service, but in a press conference after the keynote, Red Hat said that Mugshot could be integrated into future desktop Linuxes and could be offered as a commercial service.

Two other projects that Red Hat announced will have a much more direct effect on enterprises that deploy Linux solutions. The first is a project called Dogtail, and a related set of testing software, called a "test harness," that Red Hat is giving to the open source community to allow customers to use Red Hat's own compatibility testing software and methods to check their own applications.

Jay Turner, manager of quality engineering at Red Hat, explained in the keynote that Enterprise Linux 4 Update 3 had 1,600 packages, which is comprised of 250,128 unique files and over 63 million lines of code. This code is translated into 15 different languages and is certified to run on seven different processor architectures and with software from over 500 different partners. "Software testing is a difficult proposition," explained Turner. "Open source software testing is extreme." The only way that Red Hat has been able to cope with this broad array of hardware and software--which it claims is the most broad in the world--is to automate certification and testing to a high degree. In fact, during a six-month development, Red Hat runs hundreds to thousands of compatibility tests on tweaked software each night.

According to Tom Kincaid, director of quality engineering at Red Hat, the company created the Dogtail tools and then went to its biggest customers on Wall Street, asking them to contribute their application testing profiles so they could be added to the suite of tests that Red Hat runs against each version and update of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. "Customers used to ask how 1,600 binary packages continue to operate across seven different architectures," said Kincaid. "Now, customers want to know how they can test their own internal builds against their own software and hardware." By taking the Dogtail software open source, which was done in a limited way through the Gnome community earlier this year, companies will now be able to do this.

Red Hat hopes that companies will not only use the test execution engine at the heart of the Dogtail tools (which are being released through the Fedora site), but will also contribute their test suites back to the community, which will in turn help Red Hat better test the compatibility of code. Red Hat is not charging for the Dogtail tools, but Szulik said in the press conference that the company has not ruled out the possibility of charging for the service, much as it does for patches and updates through the Red Hat Network.

The other project that Red Hat announced is called 108, which is a mystical or sacred number in a lot of different religions and philosophies. The 108 project, which is located at https://www.108.redhat.com, is a collaboration portal for developers and system integrators who want to help each other make Linux and related open source software work better. Todd Barr, director of enterprise marketing at Red Hat, bluntly laid out the problem that the 108 project is addressing during the keynote. "The problem is that software sucks," he said. "The world spends $60 billion a year fixing bad software, and at least $1 out of every $5 spent on software is wasted." He said that commercial software has 20 to 30 bugs per 1,000 lines of code--compared to a stunning 0.17 defects per thousand lines of code in the Linux 2.6 kernel. Red Hat wants to bring the quality endemic in Linux to software at large, and the 108 project is about fostering technical exchange to facilitate this improvement in quality.

With the 108 project, Red Hat is not trying to supplant the code repositories like SourceForge or CollabNet, but to supplement them. The 108 site will be where Red Hat's engineers and partners share their best practices and raise issues of software quality and integration. It is, in a way, akin to the Microsoft Developer Network or Java.net developer communities that Microsoft and Sun Microsystems have created as portals for their respective .NET and Java communities.

Correction: This story garbled the statistics that Red Hat made in its launch of the 108 project. The statistics have been corrected above, and IT Jungle regrets the error.



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Editors: Dan Burger, Timothy Prickett Morgan, Alex Woodie
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