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IBM Leverages Linux in Sun Challenge

Sep 14, 1999, 19:43 (0 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by John Wolley)

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By Linux Today Silicon Valley correspondent, John Wolley

"Sun Screen", the program's code name, sums up the objective of IBM's latest marketing thrust -- to take Unix server market share away from Sun Microsystems. Although the announcements focused on the RS/6000 server line and a new release of IBM's AIX version of Unix, it may be that IBM's broad embrace of Linux causes Sun as much trouble as the extraordinary price-performance numbers that IBM claims for the new RS/6000 servers.

Details of IBM's new strategy were formally unveiled Monday (13 September) in press conferences held in San Francisco, New York, London, and Tokyo. The explicit mention of Linux at the IBM news conferences was limited to Linux availability on the RS/6000 model B50 server, and announcement of the Linux Application Execution Environment. But if conversations with an IBM customer are representative, IBM's Linux support (and Sun's lack of same) may prove to be critical in challenging Sun's Unix server dominance.

Tony Befi, IBM vice president of advanced technology development, described the B50, also referred to as "Pizzazz", as being aimed at Internet service providers (ISPs) and the newly defined "application service providers" (ASPs) -- basically ISPs who provide server-based applications over the Web. Befi says the B50, fully configured, will sell for US$4000, while a comparably configured Sun box goes for US$6000. The B50 takes up very little space, stacks to the ceiling, and has a specially designed model 2104 360GB storage unit, also known as "Oyster", to accompany it -- and Oyster also stacks. The ISP market is one that Linux already dominates, but Sun servers also have a significant share here that IBM would like to get a slice of.

According to Gerry Hackett, IBM vice president of AIX development, the Linux Application Execution Environment is based on the open-source LXrun code that was originally developed by SCO to allow SCO Unix to run Linux binaries. Hackett says that LXrun is also being used by Sun to allow Linux binaries to run under Solaris. IBM is basically optimizing the LXrun code for AIX and extending it to allow the Linux source code to be recompiled, so that the still-Linux binary is optimized for AIX. Hackett expects the Linux Application Execution Environment to be available by the end of the year. She says it will be open-sourced, but that the licensing is not yet set; that is, it may not be GPL.

VoicePlanet was one of the vendors sharing the spotlight with IBM at the press conference in San Francisco. VoicePlanet offers Web-based integrated messaging, applications, and file sharing. Andrea Zurek, VoicePlanet's manager of business development, said that both IBM's B50 and Sun's Netra T1 were evaluated: the B50 was selected primarily because IBM offered it with Linux and Sun did not offer Linux with the Netra. VoicePlanet president Vinh Danh Dao explained that their business model involves providing Web-based applications plus 15-20MB of disk storage to users for free, generating revenues only from advertising, additional disk storage, and specialized customer-requested applications. This offers little margin for paying the premium for Solaris or AIX as they scale up their operation for a global market. Dao noted that this is especially true in developing countries.

It should be noted that VoicePlanet is currently using Linux in only a very limited development role. They develop Java applications initially on Windows NT, then port to Linux, and currently run their production site under AIX. On the production site, Linux currently provides limited support functions. Nonetheless, Linux availability on the B50 server was key for their hardware decision. Very likely one of Sun's resellers could have provided VoicePlanet with Netras running Linux, but Sun didn't offer it, or offer the names of Sun resellers who could. If VoicePlanet is representative of the ISP/ASP market, then IBM's Linux strategy is about to pay off here -- at Sun's expense!

Sun and IBM both sell proprietary versions of Unix as the OS of choice for their hardware. So why is IBM able to "embrace" Linux, while Sun waffles on its degree of Linux support and stops short of offering Linux as an option, leaving that task to its resellers? Hackett offered some insight into this: IBM has already "included diversity" in its OS line for many years, although until recently that "diversity" meant only a wide assortment of IBM proprietary OSes. Sun, on the other hand, has never had to deal with OS diversity.

Related stories -- IBM's Unix server strategy
VNU Net: New AIX takes first strands of Unixware (Sep 13, 1999)
LinuxPR: Yellow Dog Linux Supports New IBM B50 (Sep 13, 1999)
ComputerWorld: IBM Unveils Servers for Internet Providers (Sep 13, 1999)
Reuters: IBM unveils new UNIX line, takes aim at leader Sun Micro (Sep 13, 1999)

Related stories -- Sun's mixed messages on Linux
CNET News.com: Sun buys Microsoft Office competitor (Aug 20, 1999)
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Smart Reseller: Sun/Netscape alliance retreats on Linux (Jul 27, 1999)
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