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Making Interoperability Possible: An Interview with Likewise CEO Barry Crist

Likewise CEO Barry Crist talks about the importance of interoperability, the differences between the corporate and open source communities, and what's ahead for Linux.

Nothing exists in a vacuum, especially in the world of IT. While it might be nice to imagine a world where all systems run Linux, the truth of the matter is that Linux needs to co-exist with other operating systems to make headway in the business world– especially with Microsoft Windows, which is too deeply embedded in corporate infrastructures to be displaced anytime soon.

To that end, Likewise (formerly Centeris) provides solutions to integrate Windows, Linux, UNIX, and Mac OS X. Specifically, Likewise Enterprise and Likewise Open provide integration with Microsoft’s Active Directory, giving organizations the option of single sign-on for applications and users.

Since this is a crucial area for Linux adoption, we decided to talk to Likewise CEO Barry Crist about its solutions, and where he sees open source going in 2008.

Linux Magazine: How would you sum up Likewise and its offerings?

Barry Crist: We deliver compliance and operational efficiency solutions for enterprise customers with mixed network environments that include Linux, UNIX, Microsoft and other systems. We are passionate about making Linux a first class citizen in a Windows network. What we mean by first class citizen is that it should be viewed as equally viable to choose a Linux solution from an operational efficiency perspective. Linux shouldn’t be a step child exception in the IT operations group.

An example of this can be seen in Linux Desktop Group Policies. We have a financial services customer, a very large company with a call center group based out of India. They are using over a thousand Linux desktops. They need to be able to set group policies for things such as browser settings and screen savers. It’s not feasible to do this one at a time.

With Likewise Enterprise 4.0 we enable this type of Group Policy management. In fact, we have over 500 Group Policies, and many of them help lock down and manage Linux Desktops. Basically anything that is controllable through Gnome is controllable through our group policies.

Another great example of how we are making Linux a first class citizen in a Windows network is a new feature we just announced as part of Likewise Enterprise 4.0, the Administrative Console. Now, for the first time, Linux Administrators can manage Active Directory from a Linux machine.

We have a telco customer in the west that needed a directory solution for their UNIX systems. They had three teams involved in the decision. The Active Directory group, the Security team, and the UNIX operational team. The UNIX team was pushing toward an Open LDAP solution. They quickly were convinced that it made sense to go with Likewise and leverage their Active Directory investment. They liked not having to use Windows machines or getting the Windows team to access Active Directory. With the Likewise Console they can manage Active Directory right from their UNIX systems.

LM: Tell us a bit about your background, and why you’re interested in the area of interoperability.

BC: My first job during and after college was for Apple where I worked initially on their IT team. I worked on interoperability projects for them starting in 1985. Most recently I came from Mercury where I ran their Application Management business unit for North America.

Likewise was founded on the premise that problems exist where Linux and UNIX environments collide with Windows infrastructure.

LM: Centeris recently changed its name to Likewise, what’s the impetus behind the name change?

BC: The Likewise brand is very strong with our enterprise customers. We decided that it is simpler for us to have a single brand for our products and company. It eliminates confusion.

LM: What sort of problems has Centeris/Likewise faced as an ISV for the Linux platform?

BC: Our biggest challenge is the number of Linux and UNIX platforms that we have to support and test for our enterprise customers. We support over 100+ platforms and many of our projects involve compliance with PCI, SOX, and HIPPA regulations.

This means that we have to be very thorough for our customers. Being thorough across 100+ platforms is time consuming and expensive. Each Linux and UNIX platform has their idiosyncrasies especially when it comes to authentication. While this is a hard part of our business it is also part of the big value add that we provide to our customers especially compared to other approaches.

LM: One of the big question marks over the deployment and use of Linux and open source is Microsoft– specifically, whether the company would ever make good on its veiled (and not-so-veiled) threats about patent suits.

Do you think it’s likely that Microsoft will ever actually try to go that route, or will we see a” kinder, gentler” Microsoft?

BC: The customer base is pretty clear that they prefer” kinder, gentler.” While the legal and patent issue causes some degree of hand wringing among some, we don’t see this changing the adoption of Linux and other Open Source technologies with enterprise customers.

LM: Like many companies, you offer an open source product (Likewise Open) alongside proprietary offerings– what’s the strategy there for Likewise?

BC: For customers that just want to authenticate a Linux or UNIX server to Active Directory we recommend Likewise Open. Customers that require advanced features such as migration tools or group policy support should use Likewise Enterprise.

Likewise Open is also a great avenue for us to strengthen our partnerships with Red Hat, Novell, Ubuntu, and IBM. Both Red Hat and Ubuntu will ship Likewise Open in their next versions and we are working with others on the details for more announcements such as this.

Likewise Open is a big improvement over other home grown approaches. We’ve added significant IP to make configuration very simple and around features such as cached credentials and single-sign on with PuTTY and SSH. Likewise Open provides organizations that are struggling with do-it-yourself solutions with a proven enterprise solution for authentication.

Likewise Open is hosted at www.likewisesoftware.com/open and the source code is available today to enable Linux vendors to integrate open-sourced Linux authentication solutions into upcoming versions of their operating systems.

LM: Likewise Open is offered under the GNU General Public License (GPL) — why did Likewise choose that license?

BC: We had several objectives in selecting a license for Likewise Open. First we wanted something that our customers would be comfortable with. Secondly we needed something that would be compatible with the major Linux distributions.

Red Hat and Ubuntu have announced that Likewise Open will be bundled and supported in their next releases. We felt that the GPL (and LGPL) meets these objectives.

LM: Could you talk a bit about your experiences working with the FOSS community, and how it compares to working/interacting with corporations?

BC: The Open Source community is much more consensus driven while corporations can take more of a” command and control” approach. There are benefits of both cultures and at times it is a challenge to blend the two approaches.

Part of it boils down to requirements. Many open source projects are provided as” best effort” and lack enterprise strength testing and QA. Really excellent testing and QA processes don’t lend themselves well to being consensus driven.

This is one of several areas where corporate open source sponsors can add tremendous value. If a large enterprise customer is using something in production,” best effort” is nowhere near good enough for them. This is exactly why large enterprises pay companies like Red Hat good money and why our customers like working with us.

LM: Looking at the Linux distributions, do you see any changes in 2008, or do you think that Red Hat will continue to dominate the market? What are you hearing from customers about the vendors?

BC: I see continued growth in 2008 for the major distributions along with some consolidation. The top vendors such as Red Hat, Novell, and Ubuntu should continue to grab market share.

LM: What do you see happening in the Linux space in 2008?

BC: In 2008 we see Linux being a completely mainstream option for the Global 2000 and Likewise will continue to see strong penetration in this space.

We’ve been surprised a bit by the number of Linux desktop projects that are underway. We’re hearing companies tell us that the Linux desktop is a viable option for engineering desktops or single-task workers such as call center.

In addition, Linux is a natural fit for virtualization because it can be easily configured on the fly. So, we are seeing more and more Linux running in virtual environments– such as Linux running on IBM System Z.

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