An enterprise Linux distribution aimed at bringing the operating system backto its "free" roots is to see its first public beta release at the beginning of next month, the project's leader said this week.

UserLinux was created last year in order to provide an alternative to the increasing costs and lock-in strategies of the leading enterprise-orientated Linux vendors, such as Red Hat and Novell's Suse Linux. Unlike those companies, UserLinux will not charge a per-seat fee or require a customer service contract; the organisation is a not-for-profit, basing its software from the Debian flavour of Linux, itself developed by a legal non-profit entity with around 1,000 developers.

"I made some of the software in Red Hat Enterprise Server and SuSE, and I did not mean for it to sell for $200 to $400 per seat," said UserLinux project leader Bruce Perens. "I meant for it to be free in both liberty and price."

To Debian UserLinux will add a simplified software set and a network of for-profit service organisations, which will charge for technical support only as it is needed, according to Perens.

The economics will work out because businesses have an interest in funding development of software with their needs in mind, Perens argues. For example, an industry group representing 50,000 desktop or server units, contributing $1 million annually for a supported Linux system that meets the specific needs of that industry, would spend considerably less than for current enterprise Linux packages, Perens said.

"The economics of open source work worst for commercial Linux distributions," he wrote in a white paper outlining the project. "They are attempting to generate profit from a product that they don't own, and to which they can't add much value without departing from the factors that make Linux desirable." He said a multinational bank had recently called off a 10,000-system Linux deployment because "Linux is now more expensive than Windows".

Perens said the group would release the first UserLinux public beta on 1 September, using the upcoming "Sarge" version of Debian, version 3.1. The final version of Debian 3.1 is targeted for release on 19 September, and Perens said version 1.0 of UserLinux would follow shortly after. Debian 3.1 is based on the new 2.6 Linux kernel and uses a new installer developed over the past four years.

UserLinux will release four versions, an enterprise server, an enterprise desktop, a GUI server for local administration functionality and a SOHO desktop including both desktop and server features. UserLinux streamlines Debian's default set of applications in order to make the platform easier to support and develop for: the desktop environment uses the GNOME user interface and associated applications and OpenOffice.org productivity tools, and the server configuration uses Apache and Postfix. After an outcry by developers of the KDE user interface, Perens agreed to support the software, though it will not be the "official" choice.

The organisation's next priorities are to build up a global support network and convince software makers to certify their applications on the platform, Perens told Techworld. He admitted that signing up commercial software makers such as Oracle will take at least a year, but was confident that they would be attracted by a significant user base.

"We feel that it's important to get customers behind us before going to proprietary application developers for certification," he said. "A lot of Debian customers are 'in the closet' with their own companies. Business people don't seem to talk about it, but we know it's in heavy use." Netcraft, a Web services company that tracks server usage, says that Debian is the second most popular Linux distribution visibly being used on Web sites, after Red Hat, despite its lack of commercial backing. (Cobalt also has a strong user base, despite the fact that support has been discontinued by Sun.)

UserLinux is also relying on the Linux Standards Base (LSB), a project to ensure that Linux distributions remain compatible with one another, to ensure that applications run on the platform. "We want developers to build to the LSB testing platform if they can, so that their software runs on all distributions equally, rather than build directly for UserLinux," Perens said. "Unfortunately, LSB's coverage is much better for servers than the desktop. It doesn't cover the GUIs yet."

As for technical support, Perens believes that this is largely a matter of persuading existing Linux support organisations - some specialised for particular industries - to add UserLinux to their lists.