The Open Source movement is forcing established technology companies to re-evaluate their business strategies. Hewlett Packard is among the most progressive in this regard.
Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) is not the first technology company that most people
would think of to play the role of strong corporate champion of Open Source Software. HP’s
reputation, such as it is, is that of a perfectly respectable but somewhat gray corporation. The
company’s technology is strong but not showy, and its products tend to be found in conservative
corporate and laboratory settings, rather than in the freewheeling academic (much less hacker)
communities where Open Source has its roots. For a company as button-down as HP, Linux, Perl, Apache
and the rest of the lot all seem a little too unzipped.
It is a tribute both to the strong grassroots pull of Open Source, as well as a new sense of
adventure and risk-taking inside HP itself, that the company has become an aggressive backer of Open
Source in recent months. On March 1
at the LinuxWorld Expo, HP announced the creation of their Open Source Solutions Operation (OSSO),
which will work to drive Linux adoption in enterprise and Internet software-development
environments. HP hopes to pull this off by providing the tools, technologies, and solutions to
facilitate application development on Linux.
HP is a diverse and distributed company with many autonomous business units. When Wayne Caccamo,
director of HP’s OSSO, first got involved in pulling together HP’s Linux strategy (after doing an
inventory of HP’s current Linux capabilities and offerings), it was clear to him that the company
could be a strong Linux-based business solution provider if they could better align their Linux
systems, software, and services strategies. As head of OSSO, Caccamo’s challenge is to ensure that
the individual division strategies are coordinated so that HP can present comprehensive solutions to
their target customers.
These efforts by HP are in some ways being mirrored at most other big computer companies, as
part of the recent move towards corporate adaption of Open Source Software. Netscape Communications
Corp. was one of the first companies to make a move; early last year, it made available the source
code to its browser. IBM also made headlines in the summer of ’98 when it announced it would be
working with the Apache Group. Oracle Corp. has said it will port its mainstay database products to
Linux. And Linus Torvalds has even spent many hours at Silicon Graphics Inc. (now just “SGI”),
helping that company incorporate Linux into its product line. Among the many reasons for the
interest: Linux helps them equalize their relations with the Microsoft Corp.
The Open Source Business Model
The growth of Open Source in general and Linux specifically, as evidenced by established
proprietary companies’ interest in this area, is not a surprising phenomenon. What sets Open Source
programs like Linux apart from traditional commercial software is that its source code — the
human-readable instructions that (when compiled) tell a processor what to do — is distributed with
the software. Programmers are granted the freedom to modify the code to suit any purpose they
desire, and they can also suggest changes or improvements to the freely distributed end systems.
Such unlimited flexibility has become a powerful lure to corporate information technology
Also, while traditional companies have operated within a centrally organized structure, the Open
Source community has operated more like a diverse group of organisms working toward a common
purpose. This new model is outlined by Thomas Petzinger in his book, The New Pioneers:The
Men and Women Who Are Transforming the Workplace and Marketplace.
According to Petzinger, this new model operates under the assumption that people- instinctively
want to improve, collaborate and economize. In this way, through independent local actions, people
create what he calls “global order without central control.” This lies in stark contrast to the
proprietary model, where development has been conducted in a structured, command-oriented
So, like most of its competitors, HP is making a move towards Open Source not because of any
sudden conversion to collectivist economic principles, but instead to pursue its self-interest. As
Caccamo has noted, software such as Linux and Perl is wildly popular in some of the computer
industry’s fastest-growing markets, notably among Internet Service Providers (ISP). Like other
server and workstation providers, HP has long targeted ISPs as a key growth area. In the last year,
it became clear that the company couldn’t sell many computers there if it didn’t support these
software alternatives. “Linux has emerged as a platform of choice in markets that are of strategic
interest to us,” says Caccamo. “We need to increase our penetration of the ISP market, and Linux is
Caccamo has worked at HP for ten years, mostly in marketing the company’s business machines. He
has been called on throughout his career to serve as a kind of early radar for emerging
technologies. When commercial interest in Linux began escalating early last year, Caccamo was the
natural choice to look into the phenomenon, and to prepare an HP response. Now, his job is to be the
eyes and ears of HP in the Open Source community and to coordinate the sprawling company’s numerous
Open Source efforts. “Operations at HP are fairly autonomous,” he said. “If someone like me wasn’t
doing this job, people at HP who were interested in Linux would be working in a vacuum, without
knowing how they were part of a bigger picture.”
It is important to note that while he is technically savvy, Caccamo approached Linux from a
business perspective, rather than an engineering one. He still doesn’t use Linux himself, for
example — a fact that may give him less credibility in the Linux world but more credibility inside
HP, since he is not viewed as any sort of techno-zealot. In the course of looking into Linux, he was
schooled in the ways of Open Source by several HP employees who are well-known in the Linux
community. For example, David Mosberger, an engineer in HP’s lab, tutored Caccamo in some of the
cultural subtleties of Open Source. Mosberger was known to kernel developers for his work porting
Linux to the Alpha chip — contacts that came in handy when HP had a “Linux Day” for its lab
Ironically, another reason for HP’s support of Linux involves the company’s desire to sell more
machines based on its own UNIX, HP-UX. How so, exactly? The company hopes that certain enterprise
software developers will use Linux on HP for their development machines and then switch over to
HP-UX when the time comes to put the code to everyday use. To enable that to happen, the company is
trying to make its Linux development environment second to none. But according to Caccamo, HP-UX is
still better suited than Linux to the needs of the high-end corporate “data center,” at least for
Finally, HP’s push to Linux has yet another motivation. The company sees the Open Source
movement as the “next big thing” in computing. Thus, moving swiftly and early on Open Source is a
chance for HP to make up for seeming to be late on the last big thing in computing: the Internet.
While the explosion of interest in the World Wide Web helped sell billions of dollars in HP printers
and computers, the Web did little to increase general marketplace perceptions of the company. That’s
in stark contrast to Sun Microsystems Inc., a fierce HP rival that has been basking in the glow of
its various Internet efforts, notably the Java programming language. And IBM has undertaken a highly
successful marketing campaign to convince corporate buyers that it is the name to trust when it
comes to electronic commerce.
HP’s embrace of Linux was not especially difficult. For one, the company has long supported
multiple operating systems, notably Windows NT and HP-UX. “We have always had a very open approach
to development strategy,” says Caccamo. “We have never been very religious about that.” In fact, far
from envisioning HP as a single OS company, Caccamo sees HP as taking a thousand-flowers-bloom
attitude to operating systems. “Our ultimate vision for all of this is that in the future, our
customers will be buying a service from us, like an information service or a commerce service,” he
says. “That means they ultimately aren’t going to know about or care about what OS is the engine for
that service. Linux could take over front-end Web and e-mail serving, while HP-UX might be the host
for very high-end applications, and NT might be best of breed for groupware. For customers, it won’t
matter, because we will be selling them a service. And as far as operating systems go, we almost
have an obligation to give our customers a choice.”
The Puffin Group
As OSSO looked over the Open Source projects under development, Caccamo was pointed at a
project that had been started by the Puffin Group, an Ottawa-based consulting firm that had begun
work on porting Linux to HP’s PA-RISC processor. (PA-RISC stands for “Precision Architecture Reduced
Instruction Set Computing”.) This was precisely the type of project OSSO felt should have HP’s
support and a decision was made to help the Puffins out.
The Puffin Group was founded in September 1998 by Christopher Beard and Alex deVries in Ottawa,
Canada. Beard and deVries, both in their mid-twenties, had been freelance Linux hackers who could
barely afford to attend Linux conferences. With the operating system’s explosion, however, the duo
have positioned themselves to take advantage of the situation. As we have mentioned, Open Source
operates under a completely different business paradigm from proprietary companies, and the Puffins hope to serve as a nexus.
Much of the work for Puffin projects is done almost spontaneously during weekend “summits,”
hosted by Beard and deVries and sometimes attracting programmers from firms such as Oracle and
Netscape. As the duo explained to the Ottawa Citizen, ideas are basically brainstormed, tasks are
distributed, and the whole thing is then knitted together by the end of the weekend.
|Puffin’ Along: Co-founders Christopher Beard (L) and Alex deVries.|
Caccamo and OSSO were alerted to the Puffin Group by an HP employee. Last fall, the group began
to port Linux to PA-RISC, one of the few major microprocessors that was still without Linux support.
When the PA-RISC project started, Beard sent an e-mail about it to an HP executive he saw named on
the company’s Web site. But he assumed the company wasn’t interested when he did not hear back.
When Caccamo found out about the Puffins, he sent an e-mail to them right away, hoping to find
out more information. In a subsequent phone call, the Puffins explained what they were up to.
Caccamo was impressed; HP had thought about doing a PA-RISC port itself, but the project was stalled
because some of the higher-ups were worried about committing the considerable engineering time
needed to complete the work.
The Puffins, therefore, presented an attractive proposition to HP, and Caccamo immediately
thought about working with them. There were some concerns about moving ahead, though. Chief among
them was a worry about how the move would look to HP’s corporate customers. Specifically, OSSO was
worried that Sun would use the announcement to try to paint HP as equivocating in support of its own
UNIX. These worries were quickly addressed, and the company chose to take the risk. That was several
months ago, though, and it’s a measure of how quickly things are changing with Linux that Caccamo
now believes that a greater marketing danger involves not having an ambitious Linux effort underway.
“It’s something you avoid at your own risk,” he said.
Another reason HP went ahead with the Puffins involved a new spirit of risk-taking at the
company, which is trying to re-invent itself in order to re-ignite the growth it was famous for in
the early and mid 1990s. In years past, a move like the Puffin liaison would have been debated
endlessly in various HP committees. But when Caccamo learned of the Puffin effort, he told his boss
it was an opportunity he thought HP would be foolish to pass up. Within a few days, he got the okay,
as issues like the potential response from Sun were settled quickly.
The Puffin developers will manage the core porting project. While not supplying cash to the
group, HP will contribute marketing and technical resources. In typical Open Source fashion,
volunteers worldwide will rely on Internet communications to keep their work focused and
HP’s Other Open Source Projects
While the Puffin project has gotten most of the attention, the Puffins aren’t the only
outsiders that HP is working with regarding Open Source Software. In April, HP and Cygnus Solutions
announced that they will deliver Cygnus’s GNUPro toolkit for HP-supported platforms under HP’s
Foundation Program for software development partners.
Cygnus’s GNUPro toolkit is an Open Source multi-platform software development environment that
is based upon the GNU Project’s Free Software tools and libraries. The package includes a C/C++
compiler, a visual debugger, appropriate libraries,printed and online documentation and many other
tools to facilitate software development on Linux and most other platforms. HP’s Foundation Program
provides software developers with the tools and middleware products they need in order to simplify
the development and deployment process for HP-supported platforms including Linux and HP-UX.
The HP and Cygnus partnership will also enhance the GNU toolsuite’s support for HP’s PA-RISC
processors. HP will make its PA-RISC debugger technology available to the Open Source community,
while Cygnus will provide tool chain optimizations and developer support services for GNU-Pro
development products. These endeavors mean that Open Source developers will now have access to a
common set of commercial-quality, Open Source tools that will ease development of applications
deployed on Linux. Perhaps most significant, Cygnus will be helping to port the GNU C library to
HP-UX in order to facilitate an internal HP effort to insure that all Linux APIs are supported on
HP-UX as well. This would enable developers to easily and seemlessly port their applications between
the two platforms.
It is interesting to note that Sun Microsystems has also announced an effort to insure that all
Linux APIs will be supported under their Solaris operating environment. With major UNIX vendors
moving towards full interoperability and compatibility with Linux, we might soon have an effectively
“unified” UNIX platform shared by all major vendors, joined by a common bond with Linux.
In general, the Open Source “spirit” is alive and well inside the company, affecting everyday
decisions. As Caccamo says, “These days, every time a new software development effort gets underway
at HP, people ask what license we should put the program out under? A binary only license? The GPL?
Asking that question has become a standard part of the process.” Which is one of the reasons that HP
is likely to accelerate its Linux efforts in coming months. Their moves to date have won rave
reviews from employees and customers, and there is more to come. “I have been getting e-mail from
all over the world, with HP people and our customers coming out and wishing me Godspeed. It’s been
Lee Gomes covers technology for the Wall Street Journal