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Analysis: IBM Stays the Course as Linux Strategy Bears Fruit

Feb 05, 2001, 11:30 (0 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Scott Courtney)

By Scott Courtney, LinuxToday

IBM President Samuel Palmisano's keynote address at LinuxWorld Expo last week may have contained no surprises, but that's good news for Linux advocates as the company extends its commitment to Open Source systems. Within the keynote itself, the press conference that followed, and a cluster of product-specific announcements, the implied message from IBM management is, "We made the right decision in backing Linux."

Last year IBM announced a number of Linux products and strategic initiatives, including a US $1 billion investment in Linux technology initiatives. Even IBM does not toss around the word "billion" lightly when discussing new business opportunities, and the company clearly feels that the investment will be repaid with interest, and Palmisano talked at length about why IBM is so confident. Thor Olavsrud's article on Enterprise LinuxToday is a nice report on the address, in which Palmisano takes aim at what he calls the "four myths of Linux." The pro-Linux statements from IBM management have become less tentative with time, and today's keynote contained a pretty blunt assertion by IBM: "We have made a choice. We have voted for Open Source industry standards."

The question then becomes not "what did they say?" but rather "what do they mean?" IBM is pushing Linux hardware at all platform tiers, but hardware revenue alone will not make good on that billion dollar bet. And IBM can hardly be called an Open Source zealot -- in fact, major products like DB2 are unlikely to go Open Source any time soon. "Voting" for Open Source may not mean the same to IBM as it means to a nonprofit project team. It's a question of ideology versus pragmatism, and IBM has pragmatic reasons for supporting Open Source in general and Linux in particular.

To a certain extent -- though IBM is not saying this directly -- there is bound to be an anti-Microsoft agenda. IBM pays royalties to Microsoft for every Windows-based system it ships, but more important is the fact that IBM lost the initiative in defining PC platform standards, and Linux could help to bring back that lost control -- or at least take it away from a partner-competitor. IBM has considerable investment in chip design and foundries, and any gains by Linux mean opportunity for IBM microprocessors as well as a dent in the dominance of Wintel architecture. Yet all of these things together do not explain why IBM is waxing poetic about the virtues of Linux.

The announcements behind the keynote offer a strong indication that middleware and services, rather than hardware, drive the company's revenue expectations. It has taken a while to flesh out the strategy that was outlined last summer, but real products are emerging at a steady pace and there are more to come. DB2 Universal Database is available for Linux on platforms from handhelds to massive servers. CICS Transaction Gateway offers developers an API framework for blending Linux applications with traditional mainframe systems, and the popular MQSeries service brings message-oriented middleware (MOM) to Linux. WebSphere, now integrated with Apache, provides a full-scale web application server. Additional products, such as Tivoli Storage Manager (formerly ADSM), Tivoli Management Environment, and Tivoli SecureWay Policy Director, round out the middleware segment.

Oddly, IBM executives see no immediate need to release a COBOL compiler for Linux. Customers don't need it, according to Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice president of technology and strategy in the Server Group. He and a colleague remarked that customers are using Linux to integrate with existing COBOL applications rather than migrating the applications themselves onto Linux. Applications that are migrated are being rewritten in C++ or Java rather than being kept in COBOL. The lack of demand for Linux-based IBM COBOL has not stopped the company from bringing other languages to Linux: VisualAge Java has been supported on Linux for months, and an object-oriented version of the REXX language is now available for free download.

There is no IBM-branded Linux distribution in sight, and the software offerings are clearly focused on the high end, where IBM hopes its customers will look to IBM Global Services for help designing and integrating large-scale solutions. Though less visible than packaged products such as servers, IBM Global Services is a large operation and the company is counting on Linux to grow this highly-profitable business segment. The process of Linux adoption raises issues of support and training for IBM's enterprise customers, and IBM sees an opportunity in addressing those needs. The announced spending level is US $300 million over a three-year period, invested in building up Global Services infrastructure to meet the needs of Linux clients.

The overriding theme to IBM's latest Linux efforts, and to the way in which they are being announced, seems to be "what we said before, and more so." For companies that are hesitating at the threshold of Linux, IBM's increasing confidence may prove contagious.

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