Enterprise Unix Roundup: The Linux World's Newest Big Wheel

by Michael Hall

This week's BrainShare saw a Linux-focused Novell unleash a bevy of announcements. Red Hat, not to be completely outdone, had some news of its own. We crack open the Unix shell world to examine backquotes, which will help you make any command argumentative.

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Once upon a time, had someone asked us when to expect a lot of Linux news, we reflexively answered "whichever weeks LinuxWorld East and West fall on this year." LinuxWorld served an important role in a market dominated by smallish companies thriving on deals with larger concerns. With the spring-autumn courtship of Linux and Novell, it now seems time to add a third week to the calendar of events to track: Novell's annual BrainShare conference.

For those who were not as glued to the news as we were this week:

  • Novell announced that NetWare's days as a stand-alone product are numbered. The company has begun to emphasize its Open Enterprise Server product, which means customers must either move to a SUSE Linux-based system or stick with the NetWare kernel originally intended to ship with NetWare 7.
  • The company will release YaST under the GNU Public License. YaST is the one component of the SUSE acquisition for which Novell has maintained a proprietary interest. YaST, an installation and system configuration tool, has long been admired among Linux enthusiasts. It is, however, unavailable outside of SUSE.
  • Although SUSE has long been recognized as a standard-bearer and backing presence behind the KDE project, Novell's acquisition of GNOME desktop company Ximian has the company talking about forming a single desktop environment from GNOME and KDE.

The first item is the least surprising news of the lot: NetWare still has a loyal following, but the name isn't synonymous with enterprise scalability the way Linux is coming to be recognized. Porting NetWare's management tools, on the other hand, is imminently sensible.

Effectively handing YaST over to open source/free software developers is similarly unsurprising. When SUSE was a stand-alone company scrapping for share in the retail space, YaST was an important value-add the company probably felt it couldn't afford to freely provide. With Red Hat stepping out of that space, and with a much broader array of management tools available through the NetWare portfolio, YaST is a useful bone to throw to demonstrate Novell's "good citizen" status among Linux enthusiasts.

This way, when Novell is less forthcoming with the source for everything else, it will have something to point to. Symbolism aside, Red Hat could stand to take a hard look at YaST: It's not an inspiring tool, but it's better than the hodgepodge of functionality we've encountered in Red Hat's Enterprise Server.

The integration of the GNOME and KDE desktops reflects a little more "take" in the give and take companies face when dealing with the Linux world. Both projects have been around for some time; both have devoted developers and users; and both are remarkably common. They're also built on different architectures, and have distinctive interfaces with their own quirks. The ongoing existence of two major desktop environments for Linux has been a point of pride as well as contention among Linux devotees for as long as the projects have existed. It has also stuck in the craw of more conventional and business-minded outfits fretting over the perceived inconsistency and divided effort they could be seen to represent. Only time will tell if Novell's "third way" in the desktop wars will be more than a rehash of Red Hat's "Blue Curve," which was a superficial "integration" carried out by slapping the same theme on the two environments.

What is clear from this week's BrainShare conference is that Novell is now an official "Linux player." Linux leader Linus Torvalds even turned up to speak, taking a shot at SCO and telling Novell executives "You guys can may be be the next big thing in Linux on a different scale."

What remains to be seen is how the company spends the "capital" incorporated from SUSE's long-standing credibility among Linux users and Ximian's interface expertise.

Before moving on to Other News, we'd like to point to a more thorough rundown of Novell's plans for Linux, here on ServerWatch.

In Other News

» Although Novell captured a large chunk of the limelight this week, it wasn't a bad week for Red Hat, either: It announced a profitable fourth quarter, largely driven by a 72 percent gain in subscription revenue against flat growth in services income. Also, IBM announced it will sell Red Hat Enterprise Server 3 on its POWER eServer and BladeCenter systems. Big Blue has certainly covered its bases, having just wrapped up a $50 million investment in Novell. This is not a particularly unusual move, however, as IBM has maintained relationships with most major Linux distributors for years, and Red Hat is still more prominent than SUSE in North America ...

» ... and anyhow, IBM said it will also be shipping SUSE on a wide array of its servers. Its eServer iSeries, pSeries, xSeries, zSeries, and BladeCenter systems will now include SUSE at customer request.

» Elsewhere in deal-land, HP and Novell will partner to provide Novell's SUSE products on HP desktop machines.

» It looks like the Linux world is beginning to route around the issues XFree86's new license created. Fedora, the "community developed" Red Hat spin-off, began packaging an alternative X11 implementation from the XOrg Foundation.

» We were a little surprised to read Adobe won't be bringing FrameMaker to OS X. The Mac's newish Unix underpinnings surely aren't a challenge: FrameMaker runs on Solaris, and Linux observers will remember the self-destructing FrameMaker beta that never became a product they could buy.

» And, finally, our obligatory SCO item of the week: The company is turning its attention to federal Linux users, going after high-profile government users of Linux supercomputers and clusters.

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Security Roundup

The biggest security item this week is a denial-of-service vulnerability in OpenSSL. Vendors with patches out include HP, Fedora, Trustix, OpenPKG, Slackware, Gentoo, Debian, Red Hat, FreeBSD, and En Garde Secure Linux

Tips of the Trade

Sometimes it's useful to pass the output of one program as an argument to another, or assign the output of a command to a variable. In the Unix shell world, that's where backquotes come in.

Here's a simple example:

Suppose you want to write a log backup script that stores files in a series of directories named for the date on which the script runs. With backquotes, you can couple the command mkdir with a backquoted execution of the date command to create a directory with the month and year appended to its name.

mkdir logs_`date +%m%y`

will create a directory called logs_0304 (assuming this command is run in March 2004).

The advantage of using backquotes in this sort of context is pretty clear. A command expressed only once (and we'll admit, we're forever looking up the syntax for date alone) can be reused to return dynamic information in scripts, making them much more reusable and simple.

find is another candidate for using backquotes. We periodically find ourselves with many source archives laying around, and we like to round them all up into a central directory where we keep pristine sources from developers. One way to do that using backquotes and find might be a command, like:

mv `find ./  -iname "*tar.gz"` ~/sources/

In that case, the find command tracks down every file in the current directory and its subdirectories with the suffix tar.gz. It returns that as an argument to the mv command, which puts them in the directory called "sources" in our home directory.

And here's one more bonus application of backquotes and dates for the ever-popular Unix mail client mutt. Mutt maintains close ties to the Unix system running underneath it. It's possible, in fact, to create custom commands using Unix commands. Here's a line from our .muttrc file that handles creating a custom-named directory to sort our sent mail by month:

set record = =sent_`date +%m%y`

Using that, each time you send a mail, a copy will be automatically filed into a folder in the mail directory called "sent_MMYY", where "MM" is the current month and "YY" is the current year.

Light Reading

We like pointing to the occasional Unix culture piece, and we were happy to rediscover an essay titled "The Elements of Style: Unix As Literacy." We especially recommend it for all those former English majors out there who now find themselves tending a Unix box -- and maybe even enjoying it.

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This article was originally published on Thursday Mar 25th 2004
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