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IBM Leverages Linux in Sun Challenge

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)
(Prominently mentioned Sun’s ambivalence towards Linux: ” ‘I’m
not sure that Sun has the interests of the Linux community at
heart, except to convince them that there’s some level of
compatibility between the Linux and Solaris community,”
[International Data Corporation analyst Dan] Kusnetzky said. ‘My
sense is sun is trying to position themselves as Linux’s big
brother. When you outgrow Linux, come to us, and we’ll make it all
work.’ [Deutsche Bank Alex. Brown financial analyst Phil] Rueppel
says Sun seems to be of two minds about Linux. ‘Sun publicly
endorses the open-source software model, but they still want people
to purchase licenses of Solaris,’ Sun’s Unix operating system. ‘The
debate runs far and wide within Sun.’ “
Smart Reseller:
Sun/Netscape alliance retreats on Linux
(Jul 27, 1999)
CRN: Sun CEO
Speaks His Mind — McNealy: No to Linux, no to NT
(May 10,
1999)
Network World
Fusion: Solaris chief: Linux great for Sun
(Feb 03, 1999)

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IT-Director: IBM
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