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The Z-Factor: Meet the Simon Cowell of Linux

Zemlin, ecosystems and pushing Penguins

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Open ... and Shut Canonical chief Mark Shuttleworth - a friend and my former boss at Canonical - has never had much love for rival Linux vendor Red Hat. So when he labelled Red Hat Enterprise Linux "legacy" technology during his keynote at LinuxCon in Barcelona, Spain, this week, aligning it with Solaris' faded glory, it was perhaps not surprising.

What was surprising was that over 1,000 people showed up to an event to talk about Linux, a technology that is hardly legacy but is such a well-understood staple of enterprise computing that one wonders what all those people had to talk about.

After all, despite obligatory meanderings into cloud computing and Black Swans, much of the discussion was on nitty gritty Linux subsystems and drivers, with fascinating titles like kdump on the Mainframe and Video4Linux2: Path to a Standardized Video Codec API and Status of Linux Tracing.

No, I wasn't the target audience for the conference. But I respect greatly what the Linux Foundation has done to keep the Linux conversation vibrant for the developers and other IT people who are its target demographic. I've written before about what separates good open source foundations from bad ones, and the Linux Foundation is as good as they come.

What sets it apart? For one thing, it's never been shy about branching out. Through the Linux Foundation Labs initiative, the Linux Foundation has managed to remain part of the broader open-source conversation. Most are directly related to Linux but some, like OpenMama, pushed the organisation into middleware.

Such moves have not always been welcome. I've criticised the Linux Foundation for getting beyond its roots and getting in the way of its sponsors. By taking sides with MeeGo, for example, the Foundation threatened to undermine its credibility with other Linux-based mobile projects.

Nor does it help the Foundation's credibility when the projects in question fail. Tizen and MeeGo, for example, promised to extend the Linux Foundation's influence into mobile, but the projects have withered on the vine.

Maybe that's not accidental. No, I'm not suggesting that the Linux Foundation purposefully kills off its Labs projects. Rather, I suspect Jim Zemlin, the Foundation's executive director, is very clear about what his primary mandate is: Linux advocacy and development. So while the Foundation may attempt to nurture other projects, Linux is always going to be the big name on the marquee, not OpenMama or Tizen or any particular variant of Linux.

Which, when one thinks about it, is how other foundations like the Apache Software Foundation are run. Apache, too, doesn't guarantee the success of its projects. It simply provides good infrastructure for that to happen.

Zemlin and the Linux Foundation, however, go one step further. Zemlin is an active advocate for Linux, constantly in the news and on his blog, whether ripping on patents, taking pot shots at Microsoft Windows, or talking up Linux in automobiles. In other words, he helps to make the Foundation's brand bigger, giving it more credibility within the development community and, perhaps particularly, the sponsoring vendor community. No one has raised money more successfully for an open source foundation than Zemlin has.

Which is why more than 1,000 people showed up to talk about technology that we thought we understood. The Linux Foundation, through its light stewardship for Linux development and its active advocacy for the Linux ecosystem, has kept Linux part of the active conversation about open source. Not just where it has been, but where it is going. ®

Matt Asay is vice president of corporate strategy at 10gen, the MongoDB company. Previously he was SVP of business development at Nodeable, which was acquired in October 2012. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe (now part of Facebook) and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register. You can follow him on Twitter @mjasay.

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