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New technology center mixes business with Linux

By Jay Lyman on May 11, 2006 (8:00:00 AM)

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Linux has different meanings in the corporate and collegiate worlds, but a new Linux Technology Center (LTC) in upstate New York is bridging that gap and bringing both students and small business the benefits of Linux and open source.

Based at Binghamton University, the center brings together expertise from the school, IBM, and Mainline Information Systems. More importantly, it brings Linux and open source to the local business community through Binghamton students and their open source experience.

While other centers in New York focus on technical research and development, Binghamton's Linux Technology Center will be more focused on education and relationships with local industry, says professor Upinder Dhillon. "Firms are looking for leaders who will look beyond traditional solutions that are being used today," he says.

To prepare students to be administrators, managers, and entrepreneurs with open source expertise, the LTC will provide a learning lab to give hands-on experience with open source software and communities to at least 20 to 25 students, Dhillon says. In addition to the students and local businesses benefiting from the center, Linux and open source software also stand to gain from the center's participation, according to Dhillon.

"That community is built by its members," he says. "The more members and institutions devoted to it, the greater the pace of development in the Linux world. That's where we hope we can play a significant role."

FOSS in action

Binghamton student and emerging Linux pro Michael Head says he became involved with the LTC late last year, when he was approached by the chair of the computer science department, professor Kanad Ghose. "I was particularly excited that Linux job opportunities were starting to be officially supported by the school administration and local business," Head says. By the time he completed his work on a project with local company Custom System Integrations (CSI), Head had introduced several open source tools and projects to the organization, including Eclipse, gcc, GTK, Glade, and autotools/autoconf/automake. CSI had already purchased Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3, he says.

Before the LTC project, CSI had no corporate experience with Linux, and only one or two of the company's employees had any personal experience with it, Head says. "Still, I got a lot of visitors to my cube from other interested employees," he says.

At CSI, Head says he set up numerous PCI I/O cards, including digital, analog, CAN, and RS-232, under RHEL3. He checked that the drivers worked, and built a GUI program that tested whether each card was functioning properly.

"There ended up being some significant troubles getting things to work," Head recalls. "Our first motherboard simply did not work with Linux and PCI-2-PCI transparent bridges. The bridge was required because we had so many cards (11) that we needed to run simultaneously. This incompatibility caused me a large number of headaches because it wasn't obvious that the bridge plus Linux PCI code combination was at fault."

The problem prompted Head to post to a number of mailing lists, including an entry on the Linux Kernel Mailing List. "While I didn't receive an on-list response to that problem, I did get a response from the manufacturer's support staff," he says. "I was impressed that they followed the list and contacted me based on my post."

By leveraging the Linux and open source development communities, Head says, he was able to deliver dollars to CSI that the company may have otherwise missed. He says he hopes the LTC will expose this utility to more of the New York area's small business people.

"There are a lot of businesses here that might find opportunities to deploy Linux, but haven't the skills to do it or even the awareness of those opportunities," he says. "What's more, as far as I know, there aren't any local Linux consultancies, so the managers at those businesses don't even have a place to go to find out about those opportunities. The project I was on was a perfect example of this. Because the customer specified Linux, CSI would have passed on the contract except for the fact that the LTC could provide a resource (me) to help them out.

"There are a lot of students like myself here at the university that have both the Linux knowledge and great need for extra cash. With the new Linux Technology Center, we students have got a place that will do the marketing and develop the local business relationships for us, so we can have, as Joel Spolsky recently put it, the 'developer abstraction layer,' though I'd probably modify it slightly because it's really the 'student developer abstraction layer.'"

Linux marketing sucks

Head also observes that his experience reflects the lack of marketing and promotion for Linux to smaller businesses, which often know the power of the open source operating system only if they chance upon it. "During my time at CSI, I heard the general manager several times repeat that 'Linux's marketing sucks,'" Head says. "As a long-time technology and Linux person, this really shocked me. But after thinking about it for awhile, I realized how huge the opportunity for Linux continues to be."

Head says while Linux is a known quantity to him and others like him, most businesses, particularly smaller ones, have not had the chance to realize the capabilities of Linux compared to Windows or Mac OS X. "After spending some time in a Linux-less small business environment, I'm realizing that someone needs to get out there and explain to small businesses what Linux can do for them," Head says. "And I don't think this is a job for Red Hat or Novell or IBM or HP or Canonical. Hopefully, the LTC will provide that sort of marketing for the Binghamton area. I think there's a huge opportunity for anyone that wants to develop and/or support Linux, particularly in smaller communities, to start talking with local business owners. Once the local business owners start to understand what Linux can do for them, and the fact that there is a fellow local business person that will help them achieve their goals, they'll start supporting it."

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