Bowling for Linux

Linux / Open Source
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Two weeks ago (March 6, 2003), SCO Group filed a $1B suit against IBM for "stealing" its important intellectual property and releasing that property into the open-source operating system called Linux. When SCO made the announcement, the Linux community of developers--many of whom had been busily laboring away in collaboration with the partners of UnitedLinux consortium--suddenly paused and gulped.

What does this mean? What will this lawsuit bring? Will it short-circuit IBM's commitment to a grand Linux strategy? What will be the future of the UnitedLinux consortium?

To understand how such a lawsuit might impact the momentum behind Linux, you must understand the history of how AIX (IBM's version of UNIX) evolved over the last 18 years. This is the basis for SCO Group's claim. It's a tortuous path, with many twists and turns in the road.

Variations on a Theme

The history of UNIX extends back to the late 1960s, when ATT Bell Labs developed an operating system based upon an earlier OS called Multiplexed Information and Computing System (or MULTICS). The new operating system, designed specifically for the PDP-7 minicomputer, was called Uniplexed Information and Computing System, or UNIC. It was later renamed to UNIX.

In 1973, a couple of Bell Labs programmers named Dennis Ritchie and Ron Thompson rewrote the UNIX kernel in the C programming language, making it one of the first operating systems not written in Assembly language. This code, written in C, became the intellectual property that SCO Group now claims to own.

In 1975, ATT Bell Labs began licensing tapes of this C programming code to various academic institutions. The University of California at Berkeley subsequently compiled and released its own version of this operating system code, known as UNIX BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution). In turn, Sun Microsystems chose UNIX BSD as the basis for its SunOS. Later still, UNIX BSD was used as a model from which Sun Solaris was created.

IBM too established a licensing agreement with Bell Labs and modified the code so that it would run on the first RISC chips it was using for the RS/6000 platform.

By the end of the 1980s, there were so many commercial and academic versions of UNIX being promulgated (SunOS, HP-UX, UNIX System V, UNIX BSC, AIX, etc.) that a program compiled upon one variant of UNIX might not be compatible on a different version of UNIX. This ultimately led to the development of standards around which UNIX operating system versions could be measured. This standard was called the POSIX standard. Today, all versions of UNIX are measured to the POSIX standard for compatibility.

Who Owns UNIX?

So, how can SCO Group claim ownership to UNIX? Clearly, there are so many variants of UNIX that no one in their right mind could claim that it held the rights to this hydra of operating systems. Well, unfortunately, the trail is well established.

In 1993, ATT Bell Labs sold its interests in UNIX to Novell. Later, in 1995, Novell in turn sold those same interests to a company called Santa Cruz Operations. In 2001, Caldera Systems, Inc. acquired the assets of Santa Cruz Operations, forming a new company, called Caldera International, Inc. Those assets included the licensing rights to UNIX. Finally, in 2002, Caldera changed its name to the SCO Group. All this corporate maneuvering and consolidation had just one purpose: To maintain the grip on the intellectual property rights of the original UNIX code that was derived from the Bell Labs tapes.

HP, Sun, and Silicon Graphics eventually bought out the UNIX rights from SCO Group, but IBM did not. Instead IBM has continued to license UNIX from SCO Group: Every sale IBM makes of AIX for the pSeries platform nets SCO Group a royalty.

So what is SCO Group's beef?

SCO's Complaint

Last January, SCO Group announced it was creating a new division called SCOSource to enforce its intellectual property rights--particularly those rights that are associated with its ownership of UNIX. This $1B lawsuit against IBM is its first attempt at reinforcing those historic property rights.

According to SCO Group, IBM has taken code--and possibly libraries of code written in C as a part of the AIX operating system--and incorporated that code into the source versions of Linux that IBM is using for its Enterprise zSeries hardware platform.

Initially, this suit would then only impact IBM's zSeries of computers, but the claim may be extended to include the pSeries, iSeries (AS/400), and xSeries platforms.

In addition, SCO Group claims that IBM is making a concerted effort to "steal" the code, pointing to public statements made by a number of IBM executives, stating that IBM would bring the power of AIX into the Linux operating system. According to SCO Group, by doing so, IBM is in violation of its original licensing agreement with ATT Bell Labs.

Bottom Line? SCO Group says it can and will rescind IBM's license to AIX within 100 days, making it impossible for IBM to support its AIX operating system on the pSeries. And, since the iSeries hardware platform is currently based upon the pSeries hardware platform, the fate of one is closely linked to the other.

What's at Stake: The UnitedLinux Strategy

Okay, so why is SCO Group doing this? After all, wasn't it only last May that SCO Group (then still called Caldera) joined with Conectiva, SuSE, and Turbolinux to form UnitedLinux--backed by IBM, HP, and AMD. Wasn't it SCO's goal to help in the creation of a uniform version of Linux for business? Isn't it natural that SCO offer up some of its inherited "trade secrets" in this mutual effort? Won't SCO's lawsuit alienate one of its most important partners in this initiative?

Some analysts believe that SCO Group is trying to establish a direct link between the rise of Linux and the historic UNIX. IBM--as the player with the deepest pockets in the Linux arena--is seen as the first victim headed for the legal gears of an intellectual property battle of incredible proportions.

If SCO can beat IBM by claiming that it has "stolen" its property and released it into the public domain, every player in the UnitedLinux project--and potentially every distributor of less-powerful versions of the Linux operating system--can be held hostage. The SCO Group will collect billions, and the promise of a standards-based, open-source operating system will be severely threatened.

IBM's Linux Strategy in the Offing

Meanwhile, IBM's own strategies for putting Linux on every one of its hardware platforms might also be severely compromised. Linux is a great mechanism for touting IBM's new policy of standards-based business computing platforms. If it sees a major legal battle in the offing, some analysts believe that it will begin to reposition itself toward other operating system vehicles to protect its interests and pursue its strategic goals.

Where might IBM reposition itself if Linux becomes a battlefield? It's much too soon to speculate. Linux means too much to IBM's current server strategy, and IBM is certain to put up a significant legal defense. It can't afford to let its customers feel any sense of insecurity--especially now, as these customers are evaluating the potential of Linux in their business environments on the iSeries, pSeries, xSeries, and zSeries servers.

The Setup

Nonetheless, regardless of IBM's culpability in "stealing" from UNIX, this conflict between IBM and SCO Group has the makings of a struggle on the scale of the Microsoft vs. DOJ antitrust lawsuit. Too much is at stake, and the trail of intellectual property rights is so complex that a massive legal battle is certain to ensue.

Meanwhile, many analysts feel that IBM has been set up by SCO, and as the legal ball rolls down the alleyway toward bowling pins, what will be at stake is not only a billion dollars in damages, but the future of UnitedLinux operating system in the business computing environment.

Thomas M. Stockwell is the Editor in Chief of MC Press, LLC. He has written extensively about program development, project management, IT management, and IT consulting and has been a frequent contributor to many midrange periodicals. He has authored numerous white papers for iSeries solutions providers. His most recent consulting assignments have been as a Senior Industry Analyst working with IBM on the iSeries, on the mid-market, and specifically on WebSphere brand positioning. He welcomes your comments about this or other articles and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..