foobar on computers, software and the rest of the world

FUD alert: Linux distro lock-in? Get real!

, posted: 4-Dec-2007 06:47

A little while ago, I posted a blog entry that dealt with reasons why small businesses really should consider using GNU/Linux. I listed the freedom from vendor lock-in as one very important consideration and specifically stated that vendor lock-in here refers to data formats, not even specifically to GNU/Linux. Surprisingly (or not?), I got a very strange and negative reaction from some of my readers, which seem to be more in tune with Microsoft's solutions. So, I would like to talk about their reasoning here and my take on it.

The issue of vendor lock-in and freedom of open data formats

Just as a brief summary for those not familiar with the topic: A vendor of proprietary software can store data in closed, proprietary data formats. Thus, if you are a customer of that vendor it becomes very difficult for you to move to a competitor's product, for example if you like the features or price/performance of that offering better. Instead, the cost of moving, the risk of loosing all your data may be too great. You are 'locked in' to the current vendor, who can then charge more license fees and leave you little choice but to pay up for the next version, upgrade, etc. Also, any additional functionality you might need then also has to work with the existing (vendor specific) infrastructure. Consequently, such additional pieces of software usually have to be bought from the same vendor again. More money for the vendor, more expenses and even deeper dependency for you.

This can be applied to a whole number of vendors, but obviously, the one vendor most 'successful' with that strategy is Microsoft. Generally to the detriment of the businesses or users caught in this kind of dependency.

So, anyway, the blog was talking about GNU/Linux specifically, but also open source in general, and the fact that with open source software there are always open data formats. No surprise, since the code itself is the documentation of the format. And the code, of course, is open. So, no vendor lock-in through proprietary data formats, and no artificial dependency. Open source programs and also open source vendors are forced to compete on pure merit, features and customer service. A very different kind of business, and definitely a huge benefit to the customer.

As an example, consider the Open Document Format (ODF) used by office packages like OpenOffice. Not only was I able to move from Windows to GNU/Linux a long time ago, because I had started to use OpenOffice first on Windows. No, once KOffice 2.0 comes out, I will give it a good evaluation and see if it works better for me than OpenOffice. If so, I will switch to KOffice in a heart-beat, because I can: ODF will allow me to do so. No proprietary, closed format to hold me back. The same for my e-mail: When I ditched Outlook for the first time, I had changed to the open formats used by most standard e-mail clients. Therefore, I was able to change from Thunderbird to Evolution at a later time, and all my e-mail came along with me just fine. Again, nothing to hold me back.

The reaction

But guess what happened after I had posted that original article? Some of my apparently regular readers (you know who you are! :-) ) felt compelled to respond. And rather than discussing open formats, merits of open software vs. closed software, they came up with something completely outlandish. So much so that I can only call it FUD: They started to talk about Linux distro lock-in...

Linux distro lock-in? Seriously, guys, you can't be serious, right?

What are they on about? Well, GNU/Linux distro lock-in happens when your programs, scripts, infrastructure or work processes are geared towards a specific GNU/Linux distro. If you were to change the distro (for example, changing from RedHat to Ubuntu), you may encounter difficulties, depending on what it is you are doing or what you are used to. This is not an imaginary problem. Some people, in some circumstances may have to deal with it.

But to bring this up in this kind of discussion is complete and utter FUD.

First of all, you entirely missed the point of my posting. If you recall correctly, the point was about freedom from vendor lock-in. And as I said directly there in my blog posting, that of course refers to data! Why? Because the data is what is really important to businesses. Look, with my data liberated from proprietary formats, I was able to move from Windows to GNU/Linux. You can even move the other way if you absolutely feel compelled to do so. And I also moved without problem between GNU/Linux distros. It's all about the data.

Most businesses that we are talking about here are not IT specialised shops. They are small businesses, which are dealing with business data. Documents, e-mails, a database here and there. That's what matters most to them. Maybe some in-house file-server or web-server. I bet you, if you'd have a GNU/Linux desktop for Jane in accounting or John in sales, and they are using all the usual subjects (Firefox, Thunderbird/Evolution/whatever and OpenOffice), you could switch them from RedHat to Ubuntu and they would probably not even notice, once you adapt the themes and colours of the desktop a bit.

I know you know that! Why, oh why, did you come up with the distro lock-in FUD then? Is that all you are left with after you run out of arguments against open data formats and freedom from proprietary formats? I know you like Microsoft and all, but come on, does it have to be this obvious? You can do better than that!

If I have to move my Apache web-server or a MySQL database then that requires a little bit more work obviously, since config files can end up in different places on different distros. But still, any sysadmin worth their salt should be able to do that without too many problems. Also, take a look at this article here for a different take on this.

Another example given by those posters was that after a move to a different GNU/Linux distro a certain software developer had to recompile their sources. Well, what can I say? How difficult was that? So you had to find the right libraries again and type in 'make' and wait for the compile to finish. My heart breaks. But seriously, you are a 'software developer', right? Building software is part of your daily activities, isn't it? What are you complaining about? If you have to compile a more specialised or recent version from source, you may have noticed that most OSS software comes with always the same instructions on how to build it: (1) ./configure, (2) make, (3) make install. How difficult is that? You didn't create your software according to those standards, which are demonstrated by almost all OSS packages out there? Hm. Not quite sure what to tell you then...

But again, for most people this is just not any issue at all: They can install almost all of the same applications from the various package archives for the different GNU/Linux distros. RedHat, Debian, SuSE, they all have their own way of installing apps, but most of them now offer simple, trivially easy to use interfaces, where a new app is just a click away.

Look, don't get me wrong: I can understand that a complex setup, consisting of many different scripts that automatically maintain or install large numbers of boxes can break when you move distros. I can understand that you might have to recompile your software. Would be nice if that were not the case. It would be nice if the package management systems on the various platforms were all compatible. They are not, because when those different distros were created people had different preferences, or requirements. In the end now we have a lot of choice, with a few annoyances to pay as the price.

But let's face it: The small and mid-sized businesses that the article was talking about are not in those situations where this would be an issue. Bringing up distro lock-in in this context is complete FUD and entirely unnecessary.

Besides, how often do you think a small or mid-sized business is going to change GNU/Linux distros? I will tell you: That happens about as often as changing from Windows to GNU/Linux. And now tell me which change would require more work?

So, please, you can keep your distro lock-in FUD to yourself. Always surprising how vigorously some people feel compelled to argue against freedom from lock-in and against freedom of choice. As I said here before, freedom is not an important consideration for everyone, but arguing against it is strange indeed.

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Comment by chakkaradeep, on 4-Dec-2007 08:11

I am sorry to say, This post is just nothing but putting down your valuable reader's comments and calling them as FUD.

Did you ever read and go through the various links I posted ? Nothing. You do research on Linux, Linux, Linux...dude,I have posted many many links telling you that Microsoft has so many options and you not being their Business Partner can't get it. If you are not keen to look through the links and see what they are, please dont comment on readers. (Go through every post where I have commented and given links to find out, in your blog)

One of you worst comments was just uttering that programs in XP will not work in Vista and you never knew the reason and again I had given you links...hmm...not nice....

I know you love Linux, but that doesnt mean you SHOULD (AND) HATE other technologies out there. I had even asked you to look into Microsoft Office mobile offerings and OO response....

And you finally tell us readers' comments as FUD...

From today your blog has been backlisted and never going to read it or comment as its a known thing that its going to be like this forever!

Good Bye!

Author's note by foobar, on 4-Dec-2007 08:38

Wow! Looks like he didn't take that very well.

I was debating whether I should delete his comment, since it didn't really relate to my actual post, but I decided to allow it through anyway. I'm afraid he doesn't realise that he is making my point for me.

"Microsoft has so many options and you not being their Business Partner can't get it"

Why do I have to be someone's business partner to 'get it'? In the world of free software, I don't have to be anyone's business partner, and I can get it all. I can get all the features, and I can get (as in 'understand') all the advantages of the concept. 'Getting it' is not reserved to a select few.

I also wish that in his comment he would have been able to comment on anything about my actual post. I mean, if you don't think that Linux distro lock-in is FUD then please tell me why that is so! Comment on what I wrote. Don't distract from the issue by bringing up supposed issues with past posts, if they have nothing to do with this post?

I'm sad to see him go. He used to raise interesting points, even though many of which I didn't agree with. I tried to stay civil in my responses, but couldn't help but call 'FUD' what I thought was FUD.

All comments actually relating to my post are still more than welcome. If you have good reasons and arguments against what I wrote in my post, please feel free to let me know, so that we can discuss them.

Comment by Paul, on 4-Dec-2007 22:26

I Never read your first posting, just this one. From what I have read, and what I understand of the microsoft and linux worlds is that people do not like to think that they are wrong, and that the choice they have made are silly choices. This is why so many people get annouyed and post biased comments.

And the first reply here is a biased comment, not because he doesn't believe in what I believe in, but because he is shortsighted.

An open mind is needed, but unfortunately not everyone has matured to that level or will ever be able to.

I use linux because it gives me more options, is free for me to do as I please, and is a source of inspiration not only to the technological world but also as proof that the world isn't a huge sess pit of selfish arrogant idots. It proves that humans can work together to create wonderful things. In all walks of life there are the exceptions, and you see these people in the linux world too unfortunately.

I use windows because I need to ensure websites work correctly, never use it for gaming but it is better. everything has it's place.

What I'm trying to say is that, anybody who has the shortsightedness to poo poo someone elses choice is a bigot, there choice may be wrong technologically, but it's still there choice to make, not yours.

This blog entry seems pretty straightforward, the first post sounds like he is getting upset just because the blogger doesn't feel the same way, THATS LIFE, get over it, poeple differ.

Proprietry lock in is not good for consumers period, if you don't agree with me, never mind hay, you don't have to.

Open source does away with lock-in, maybe not completely 100% but it does a better job than proprietry does, don't agree with me, not a problem.

I like to use both OS's windows and linux, but everything has it's place right, I use one as it better ensures my online safety, is not a breeding ground for viruses and comes free of charge, i feel more comfortable using it to do online banking and the likes, the other is used because I have to to ensure compatability accross platforms. You decide which is which.

and the readers?, use what you want to, feel more comfortable with, and get your work done. I do mine with peace of mind!.

nice blog entry.

Comment by muppet, on 5-Dec-2007 08:45

There are some packages/programs that run under linux, but are tailored for specific distros. You could argue some form of distro "lock in" with those. I'm talking about proprietary, 3rd party apps. Not open source.

But you're right, as long as whatever data you want to export is in some easily understood/portable format, lock in doesn't exist. At best you might have to spend a few hours/days tweaking things on a new distro, but in the end they all run the same applications with the same config files.

Just to be evil though, think of a corporate that has rolled out Linux to 2000 end user desktops. You mention small/medium businesses, but think of the bigger players too. They might have a bunch of custom, built inhouse apps. They'd be packaged up for a specific distro and rebuilding those apps for a totally different package manager on a system with a totally different filesystem layout would be a right pain. They might consider themselves "locked in" to a certain distro.

Really you need to define what you mean by "locked in" - Those two words with no strong definition around them is the reason for the disagreement between points of view in my opinion.


Comment by William, on 5-Dec-2007 13:01

Definitely not "lock-in" in the traditional "no-options" sense in Microsoft's products.

Flipping that scenario around, let's say a business (large or small) has built a bunch of CMD/VB scripts that work in their Windows 98 environment and they want to move to XP. They'd also need to test said scripts and most likely tweak them to work in the new operating system.

Even so, it's hardly 'lock-in' is it?

Great blog posting thanks.

Author's note by foobar, on 5-Dec-2007 13:46


"Proprietry lock in is not good for consumers..."

Exactly. I know that some people may have to use proprietary software for whatever reasons. I'm not telling them that it's all evil, and I also never 'hate technology' (in all caps, as the first comment mentioned). But the point is: Any kind of lock-in, especially if it is done on purpose to lock you in is bad for the consumer. I am sometimes wondering why this is not a point that everyone can agree on? Even if I'd otherwise like Windows, should I not see that this kind of lock-in is bad for me? Apparently not, but I don't understand it.

"Open source does away with lock-in, maybe not completely 100% but it does a better job than proprietry does..."

Yes, I completely agree with that.

@muppet: Yeah, the 2000 box example is what I was referring to in the original article, when I mentioned that those who need to maintain a large number of boxes with custom scripts and all may feel the pinch. I did try to make it clear in both postings, though, that I was referring to the lock-in caused by proprietary data. Maybe I didn't make that clear enough?

@William: Interesting comparison with Win98 and XP. I hadn't even thought abou that. I'm not a VB expert, but I'd think you are right on the money with that one.

Comment by William, on 5-Dec-2007 14:02

"...right on the money..."

*grin* Actually, I realised that, after I posted that, it would technically be BAT/VB not CMD/VB if coming from Windows 98. ;-)

I have personally had to modify CMD/VB scripts to depending on wether they were running on Win2k or XP/2003. It turned out that, between the two levels of OS, they returned different outputs for the same commands (date /t if I remember correctly).

Back to being locked in to a platform though, I'm trying to educate people where I work at the moment - that any choice you make which removes the ability to make a choice later, should not be made lightly.

Author's note by foobar, on 5-Dec-2007 14:17


"...any choice you make which removes the ability to make a choice later, should not be made lightly..."

Very well said, indeed.

Comment by Your name:, on 5-Dec-2007 16:14

Red Hat and Ubuntu are 'incompatible' distros - they use different packaging formats. But that doesn't mean that I'm locked in to one or the other.

Try this: take the /home partition from a Debian installation and mount it under a Red Hat installation. Provided that all the same software is installed, then your desktop should look identical and all of your settings should be carried over. It's absurdly easy to move from one distro to another.

Comment by Karl O. Pinc, on 5-Dec-2007 17:05

To the extent that some Linux distributions include proprietary software, including proprietary drivers required to to make a machine's hardware operate, then yes, Linux distros do come with vendor lock-in; by definition because only the proprietary vendor can supply the missing piece.

This is why free-software-only distros are handy. They provide a guarantee; it will be _possible_ (and legal) to get the software working on another all-free Linux distro. Any proprietary software the end-user adds to the mix can then be accounted for and plans made. When you install a Linux distro with non-free components (SUSE comes to mind because it's put out by a company that touts it's position as a vendor of "mixed source" software) simply understanding the extent of the vendor lock-in will most likely be a non-trivial undertaking.

No software meets all needs under all conditions. But when it comes to what it takes to switch software vendors there's a world of difference between relying on computer-savvy technical staff and relying on lawyers.

Comment by TK, on 6-Dec-2007 05:13

In looking at the reasoning behind some of the Linux-distro lock-in FUD, trying to compare that to the lock-in you get from proprietary software formats is a round peg in a square hole. Think of comparing a small, annoying divet in a road to the California pothole that will actually tear the suspension out from under your car. Big difference in degrees, right? Even though they are both holes in the road, one is merely to be tolerated until fixed and the other has to be avoided completely or risk major damage.

Good post and good FUD fighting!

Author's note by foobar, on 6-Dec-2007 07:32

@TK: I used to live in California (SF bay area), and I know exactly what you mean when you talk about those potholes!

Yes, you are right: Big difference there.

Author's note by foobar, on 6-Dec-2007 13:08

@Your name: That is an interesting point that you make there: Mount /home under RedHat or Ubuntu, and all should work just the same. You are right of course, and I like that way of looking at it. In my blog, I was using the Jane and John example, but I should have just described it like you did. Good one!

Comment by Andrey, on 7-Dec-2007 01:00

I agree that currently Linux distro lock-in is not critical. At the same time, I do not see wide Linux adoption on the desktop (and no overwhelming superiority on the server) either. A coincidence? I guess not.

In the Linux world, as well as in the Microsoft one, the price of getting serviced is vendor lock in. That is, the purpose of a commercial service provider, be it Red Hat, Mandriva, or whoever, is to lock users. Currently their users are not locked much just because they are not serviced much.

What you call "lack of vendor lock in" is the ability to survive without a vendor. Yes, it is not too hard to compile something, but it is 90% of what the vendor does for you. Let us look at the remaining 10%.

Vendor arranges system scripts. That is, on a switch from, say, Red Hat to Slackware, it is necessary to review all and rewrite most of your custom scripts.

Vendor manages packages and dependencies. New vendor means that you have to reconsider what software to install.

Vendor provides quality control. If your new and old vendors disagree on what is "stable", please suffer. Same thing if they disagree on what is worth having.

The minimum vendor lock can be achieved if one goes Debian, Slackware, or Gentoo. This is still a lock in, since changing the approach costs time and money, but there is nobody to raise licensing costs and all the blah-Bela about open source little chances to disappear fully applies.

Author's note by foobar, on 7-Dec-2007 07:31

@Andrey: Interesting point to see the support as a form of lock-in. But what about the comment made by 'Your name'? Mount your /home partition under RedHat or Ubuntu, and it should all work the same (as long as you have the same apps installed).

So, if that is true (which I believe it is) then shouldn't it be trivially easy to change from RedHat support to Canonical (Ubuntu) support if one wishes to do so?

Isn't the fact that most Linux installs will not run much proprietary software and that instead all the same sets of apps are available for all of them mean that the easy change to a different distro also means an easy change of support contracts?

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New Zealand

  • Who I am: Software developer and consultant.
  • What I do: System level programming, Linux/Unix. C, C++, Java, Python, and a long time ago even Assembler.
  • What I like: I'm a big fan of free and open source software. I'm Windows-free, running Ubuntu on my laptop. To a somewhat lesser degree, I also follow the SaaS industry.
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