Why would a company the size of IBM feel the need to back an
open source operating system such as Linux when it already has so
many proprietary operating environments of its own?
In the wake of apparently endless announcements pledging support
for Linux across its hardware families, Big Blue would seem to be
turning into a pure Linux company. But is it betting its business
on the operating system or does it have other things in mind?
So far this year, IBM has announced that it will support Linux
on its S/390 mainframes, RS/6000 Unix family, Netfinity PCs - and
it is now even planning to pre load the operating system on its
IBM's justification for this is that it is responding to market
trends. It liberally cites figures from IDC, which show that Linux
outshipped all other Unix operating systems combined last year,
including IBM's own AIX variant, although it still came in second
behind Microsoft's Windows NT.
Scott Handy, director of Linux solutions marketing at IBM, said:
"There's a viable business model around it, but we also see the
longer-term strategic benefits of Linux. The interesting and
exciting thing about Linux is we don't control where it goes, we're
just contributing. Our goal is to make Linux and the whole open
source community successful."
"The growth rate of it to date has blown away any growth
rate of any previous operating systems. Last year, sales of Linux
skyrocketed, especially in the server space, from 16 to 25 per cent
[of the total] - a 92 per cent growth rate. That's pretty
phenomenal. In a server market that's only 5.5 million units, Linux
shot up to 1.3 million of it. So we're doing everything we can to
Linux Wins Friends
IBM claims that when it started looking at Linux seriously, it
was surprised by the number of advocates within its own walls and
so began formulating a strategy to handle the phenomena. But while
analysts believe the company is probably ahead of rivals in the
Linux space, IBM itself is playing this down, claiming that all the
Unix rivals are "on a par" when it comes to the operating
However, Kirsten Ludvigsen, a senior analyst at IDC's Copenhagen
Unix centre, said: "Although Compaq is shipping more boxes with
Linux than anybody, IBM is ahead of the curve of all its rivals
when it comes to Linux. Its plan is to give it to all the customers
who want it."
She believes there are consolidation and management advantages
to be had by deploying Linux across all of IBM's platforms. "IBM is
one of the few companies in the world that could manage this number
of diverse platforms. It is going for what it calls horizontal
scalability, concentrating on the front end in lots of small
deployments, with the back end taken up by a big server."
So the implication is that by selling relatively large volumes
of Linux as a front-end environment to its servers, IBM hopes to
sell more AS/400 and S/390 boxes, which still generate most of its
But independent industry analyst Phil Payne believes that IBM's
interest has been piqued because it is facing a number of
challenges - not least the ongoing skills shortage in
"IBM sees every college kid in the world downloading Linux
because it's free. What IBM has also spotted is a trend, not away
from big applications such as ERP [enterprise resource planning],
but a resurgence of in-house development for competitive advantage
and the people who will be doing this development are going to be
skilled in Linux," he explained.
As a result, while Big Blue acknowledges that AIX represents a
much greater revenue opportunity, it insists that it will continue
investing heavily in Linux into the future.
To date, it supports four Linux distributions - Caldera, SuSE,
Red Hat and Turbolinux. SuSE and Turbolinux are scheduled to go
into beta on the S/390 in the third quarter of this year, for
commercial shipment in the fourth quarter. This week, the company
also announced that it plans to support SuSE Linux on the RS/6000,
although it is already available on RS/6000 models 43P, B50 and
Targeting web servers
IDC figures indicate, meanwhile, that 45 per cent of all Linux
implementations are running on web servers; another 42 per cent are
used to run network servers; 38 per cent on email/messaging
servers; 28 per cent on database servers; and file and print
servers bringing up the rear at 26 per cent.
As a result, IBM has ensured that its Netfinity family, which is
positioned among other things as a web server line, runs all four
Linux distributions. IBM likewise claims that this is the "sweet
spot" of the market.
As for the AS/400, the supplier says it will integrate Linux on
the Windows NT model to enable OS/400 and Linux to interoperate.
But it has so far failed to specify support plans or timescales
clearly or to indicate which distribution it is likely to go for
Paul Fryer, IBM's communications manager for AS/400 systems in
Europe, said: "We are looking at a technology preview that will be
available towards the back end of the year. We are previewing it
within a partition on the AS/400 so it will run natively on the
PowerPC processor, similar to the way it runs on the S/390."
He added that the appeal of Linux for the AS/400 division was
access to the growing number of applications being developed
because these could then be run on the 700,000 AS/400s currently in
On the portable side of things, however, IBM announced last week
that its Thinkpad A20m and T20 models would run pre-configured
versions of Caldera OpenLinux eDesktop 2.4.
It is also porting its DB2 database, MQ Series asynchronous
messaging middleware, its Tivoli systems management applications,
Lotus Domino workgroup packages and other technology such as Java
to the operating system.
But the one question mark that hangs over IBM's Linux strategy
is when - if ever - will it support the Debian Linux distribution?
Although Big Blue claims that it sees Linux really taking off in
the small to medium-sized business market, it has ignored the fact
that Debian is the most popular Linux among small companies.
Support for Linux has boosted Big Blue's image among the
development community, however, according to a spokesman at analyst
"Unix programmers of years past thought of IBM as the devil
incarnate, the proprietary monolith with whom only a sinner would
traffic. Yet today, Linux programmers detect no odour of sulphur
around IBM. Has IBM changed all that much? It has certainly opened
up, what with Java and TCP/IP and Unix applications even on the
mainframe," said the spokesman.
"And Big Blue has bolstered Linux credibility in the enterprise
with its commitment to middleware ports and its S/390 Linux
technology demo. Microsoft, for its part, has also helped IBM, if
only by stepping in and taking over the bogeyman role. But note
that IBM has hired hundreds of Linux folks, a fact that is at least
as important as any corporate stance or product offering," he
Although publicly IBM appears to talk about nothing else than
Linux these days, it is clear that it is not betting its business
on the operating system, becoming an altruistic charity nor giving
away its business.
On the other hand, according to Payne, Linux is not a flash in
the pan for Big Blue. The Linux group is headed up by Irving
Wladawsky-Berger, the company's former head of internet strategy,
and a man who has the ear of IBM chief executive Louis
"Gerstner listens to everything Wladawsky-Berger says about
technology," said Payne.
But throwing open the proprietary doors and welcoming Linux in
is likely to pay dividends. IBM appears to be locking into a major
business opportunity ahead most of its competitors in an attempt to
ensure that Windows NT/2000 has a viable competitor in the
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