Intel will deepen its commitment to Linux with an investment in Linux vendor Red Hat Software to be announced this week, according to sources familiar with the company's plans.
Netscape Communications will also announce it is investing in the company, according to company executives. The companies will unveil the deals at the ISPCon trade show, in San Jose, California.
Intel is expected to pursue the growing Internet service provider market with its expanded backing of Linux, a free Unix-like OS that has gained wide acceptance among small and midsize ISPs.
Red Hat is one of several companies that packages Linux for sale along with support offerings. The OS was invented by Linus Torvalds and has evolved on an "open-source" basis for several years. It is available as freeware over the Internet and has been seen by some as the most serious, fast-growing competitor to Microsoft Windows NT Server.
One observer said the moves by Intel and Netscape are likely to boost the acceptance of Linux in large enterprises.
What large organisations want is someone to turn to for support, said Robert Berger, president of Internet Bandwidth Development, in California.
"Red Hat will probably become the most visible place where companies know they can buy support," Berger said.
Although the investments might seem to legitimize Red Hat's Linux product over others', thereby destroying the operating system's greatest strength, Berger said that shift is unlikely.
"If they start to make it proprietary, they're probably going to lose support, because people can go around them," Berger said.
Observers said Intel is intent on pursuing the market for ISP servers, which today run predominantly on Unix.
"We've watched for the last three years the gradual growth of the market for Linux servers for service providers," said Michael Howard, president of Infonetics Research, California. Howard said Infonetics figures show 65 per cent of servers at small and midsize ISPs run Unix, and 30 per cent of those are Linux servers. The remaining 35 per cent run Windows NT, he said.
Howard said small and midsize ISPs will remain relevant even as massive providers dominate the core of the network, and will help to keep Linux growing.
"There are something like 5000 ISPs in the world, and over 90 per cent are very small," Howard said. "They're the ones using Linux, and they still have a place and will for several years to come."
For example, local and regional ISPs will provide specialized services and buy wholesale national access from carriers such as WorldCom, Howard said.