Linux Goes a la Carte with UnitedLinux

Last Thursday, four separate Linux vendors announced their intent to

work together to create a single distribution named UnitedLinux

(http://www.unitedlinux.com). The companies, Caldera

(http://www.caldera.com), Conectiva (http://www.conectiva.com), SuSE

(http://www.suse.de/en), and Turbolinux (http://www.turbolinux.com), are

all very popular within their distinct geographical areas, but don't

generally compete with each other.

This new distribution will adhere to all the applicable Linux standards

such as the Linux Standards Base (LSB), Linux Internationalization

Initiative (GB18030), and Filesystem Hierarchy Standard (FHS). Many

distributions currently implement part of these standards, but miss the

mark in places either because of a difference of opinion or because of

separate evolutionary paths. Red Hat's use of /etc/rc.d/init.d vs.

/etc/init.d, for example, always bugged the heck out of me.

Linux, being open and free, has been a living breathing and evolving

entity. You have the old standards like Slackware, Debian, and Red Hat

(http://www.redhat.com). You have distributions forked from previous

versions, like Mandrake (forked from Red Hat) and SuSE (forked from

Slackware). You have new distributions created from the ether itself

such as Owl (http://www.openwall.org/Owl), Gentoo

(http://www.gentoo.org), and Linux From Scratch

(http://www.linuxfromscratch.org). There are security-enhanced distros

like Immunix (http://www.immunix.org), EnGarde

(http://www.engardelinux.com), and SELinux (http://www.nsa.gov/selinux),

or even distros for turning your machine into a piece of network

hardware like Linux Router Project (http://www.linuxrouter.org)or the

Floppy Firewall (http://zelow.no/floppyfw).

As should be familiar to anybody who has studied Darwin (and I mean the

dead scientist, not Apple's new project), all these different offshoots

of the same GNU/Linux creature will have different viabilities in the

ecosystem -- in this case the hard drives across the globe. However,

what cannot happen in natural evolutionary systems is the intelligent

merging of different branches.

If you take a bunch of animals from slightly different species -- say a

whole mess of grasshoppers with different characteristics -- and have

them join together, you will end up with a mixing of all the character

traits, but you will lack a 'superior' version of the grasshopper until

a lot of time passes. Even then, the 'super eyesight' gene may be tied

with the 'really tasty to birds' gene, and you wouldn't be able to

separate them. Bye-bye eyesight gene.

Security a la Carte

A merging of Linux distributions has the opportunity to pick and choose

the best features from each suite. The vendors will work together to

create the final product, rather than letting all the variations spawn

and die for eons until the right version survives. Hence, we'll see

results much sooner than those fictitious uber-grasshoppers. Think of it

as a form of intentional and directed punctuated equilibrium, if you

will.

From a security point of view (and that is what I'm supposed to be

talking about here, isn't it?), we have a chance to see what will come

from the merger of different mindsets. SuSE, for example, impressed me

early on with the security scripts and tools they shipped before other

distributions were even worrying about proactive security measures.

The UnitedLinux white paper stresses their security systems more than I

expected, given that the distro itself seems geared toward ISVs

(Independent Software Vendors) and IHVs (Independent Hardware Vendors)

who, traditionally, have taken the 'security only slows things down'

approach. However, all of our favorite tools will be available:

netfilter (a.k.a., iptables), for firewalls and much more; Snort

(http://www.snort.org) and ACID

(http://www.andrew.cmu.edu/~rdanyliw/snort/snortacid.html) for IDS

(intrusion detection) and analysis; SSL for all available protocols

(pop/imap/smtp/ldap/http/etc); various encrypted filesystems; IPSec for

creating secure VPNs or host-to-host transmissions; and, naturally, all

the PAM authentication methods you could shake a stick at.

One Remaining Question

How easily can UnitedLinux provide these features to the end user and

administrators? The trick will be to create software that is easy enough

for an idiot to administer, without making it easy enough for an idiot

to mis-administer.

As with any big project, more parties becoming involved increases the

risk of gaining less ground due to internal busywork, more meetings, and

less sense of direction. I think, in this case, there will be a strong

incentive to get this distribution out the door on schedule (version 1.0

release is scheduled for Q4, 2002). Regardless of how the literature may

be written, UnitedLinux's real goal is to rival Red Hat's current

position in the marketplace.

If they can do it by creating a better Linux distribution [1], then I'm

all in favor of it. After all, it's just evolution in action.

NOTES:

[1] I fully support the idea of distro's that do things right becoming

popular and stronger in the marketplace. However, given that

UnitedLinux may be stretching the GPL based on their plans to

charge per-seat licenses for the system, I'm going to be watching

the

situation very carefully. Such plans, which UnitedLinux member

Caldera has implemented in the past, have met with pretty strong

public resistance.

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