Two former Red Hat engineers are creating a new version of Linux for corporate users that they say will allow custom code modifications to be made while maintaining full support for the rest of the operating system.

Specifix was founded last year and is preparing to launch an alpha release of the unnamed operating system this week, according to co-founder Erik Troan. The first official release of the new Linux operating system is expected by the end of the year.

The idea, Troan said, is that corporate customers using Linux are often unable to customise the software for their needs without invalidating software support from their original vendor. Specifix hopes to solve that problem by allowing a customer's IT staff to modify the desired code and provide their own support for the changes. Specifix will continue to support the rest of the unmodified Linux operating system.

Specifix has created an open-source application called Conary - a distributed software management system that allows developers to track and monitor changes made to the Linux code - to allow user companies to modify and tailor Linux as needed.

Conary will allow the construction, deployment and management of a single Linux code base across an unlimited number of configurations and hardware platforms, according to the San Jose-based company. Conary is being released this week to the developer community, Troan said.

Before helping to launch Specifix, Troan was chief developer and vice president of product engineering at Red Hat. While there, he was responsible for specifying and building all products developed by Red Hat, including RPM, Linux operating systems, the Red Hat Network, high-performance Web servers and the infrastructure for Red Hat's Web site.

Specifix CEO Kim Knuttila, the other co-founder, also worked at Red Hat as VP of engineering services and managed the former Cygnus business unit, a tools developer that Red Hat acquired in 1999.

Troan said it will be up to each customer to decide whether the modifications made to the operating system are offered back to the open-source community. "There are some customers who don't want to give it back," he said. Conary is being released under IBM's open-source Common Public License.

"We are extremely excited about having the opportunity to execute on a dream that Erik and I share to deliver open-source solutions designed for a company's unique needs," Knuttila said. "We've built groundbreaking development and deployment technologies to enable OEMs, internal IT groups and device manufacturers to take advantage of the power and infinitely customisable nature of open source."

Bill Claybrook, an analyst at Harvard Research Group, said the idea was a good one, especially if the changes to the Linux code are returned to the open-source community. Many software vendors, including Oracle and Computer Associates, are already having to modify the Linux code base to make it work more efficiently with their applications, he said. But then they have to support those changes for their customers. "This happens a lot, and it's sort of like a defragmentation of Linux. But forking [the development path] is an inherent right of Linux," he said.

The company is already working on partnerships with vendors, including Rackable Systems, which builds Linux-based high-density computing systems.