Does IBM Really “Get” Linux?

It is easy to question a company's commitment to a new technology, especially when there is much confusion and competition. But anyone sniping at IBM's motives when it comes to Linux is way off the mark. Sure, I've heard the criticisms. Some say IBM is backing Linux as a last-gasp attempt to fight Microsoft, and others claim that our Linux programs are just a ploy to sell AIX as a follow-on product. Then there's the perennial gripe, "IBM is going to throw its weight around and completely botch up Linux."

Trenches Illus. (Jan00)

It is easy to question a company’s commitment to a new technology, especially when there is much confusion and competition. But anyone sniping at IBM’s motives when it comes to Linux is way off the mark. Sure, I’ve heard the criticisms. Some say IBM is backing Linux as a last-gasp attempt to fight Microsoft, and others claim that our Linux programs are just a ploy to sell AIX as a follow-on product. Then there’s the perennial gripe, “IBM is going to throw its weight around and completely botch up Linux.”

I have heard these views many times since IBM’s “coming out” party at LinuxWorld last March, where we actually demonstrated our commitment to Linux and open source during the show. And I have to say that it troubles me that months after this grassroots demonstration and numerous other tangible actions we have taken, IBM’s commitment to Linux and open source can still be doubted.

LinuxWorld was fun, and it was an example of the different tack that IBM is taking with Linux. At the show, some Netfinity developers began playing with the hardware at our booth to create an “open source supercomputer” capable of matching the performance of a Cray. Working at night, for fun, they strung together all the Netfinity servers at the show. On the last day, they demonstrated a Linux-based supercomputer benchmark that matched the three-second record of the Cray system. Of course, IBM made an investment in this project; we picked up the cost for pizza, cab fares, and Fry’s bills for cables.

The Balancing Act

So what is IBM doing with Linux? In truth, we are striving toward a balance. Yes, we are committed to Linux, but remember that being committed to Linux is not the same as turning IBM into a Linux-only company. I don’t think any single technology is going to replace the wide array of platforms you’ll find our customers deploying. Balance is the key — Linux and open source software will grow into our customers’ IT shops not by replacing it wholesale, but by integrating with what’s already there.

Integration is IBM’s bread and butter. It’s what we have been doing with customers for decades, and it is where our e-business focus lies. Even Microsoft has realized the importance of this. Since Windows NT has not taken over the world, Microsoft must worry about making it work as part of a complete enterprise. Client/server architecture, once regarded as the be-all and end-all in application programming, has not made back-end integration any less essential. We have a focus on our server-side, Java-based programming model and are even adding pervasive computing models to the mix.

Open source programming has brought us some exceptional technology, and this will continue. But we see it coexisting with other software programming models. So you will see IBM sticking to our basic business of hardware, software, and services for delivering e-business solutions on many platforms, including Linux. These will be coupled with a focused effort that recognizes the benefits of open source and Linux, and gives as much support and technology to the open source communities as we can.

Linux Everywhere

IBM’s customers continue to run many different hardware platforms and operating systems. So for us, e-business solutions and enabling customer choice go hand-in-hand. With Linux becoming a more viable option for our CIOs, IBM has jumped in with both feet.

Linux now plays a role in almost every part of IBM. One example is IBM’s ViaVoice, which is the first major speech-recognition technology to support Linux. Another example is our support of established Linux distributors, part of our efforts to support the community as it has evolved.

IBM is looking at all of its business lines to see how we can deliver Linux solutions to customers. Because Linux is over 95 percent Intel-based, IBM’s server strategy is based on our Netfinity family of Intel-based processors.

Our key middleware products have been ported over to Linux. This is the heart and soul of our value proposition to customers. We enable a wide range of programming capabilities, including transaction processing, groupware, database, filesystems, and Web application serving. Only IBM offers a complete stack of middleware that runs on Linux and on all other key operating systems.

The value proposition here all comes down to freedom of choice, and Linux helps shine the light on that. I don’t think any one entity will ever declare Linux the final operating system to which all software must eventually migrate. Windows NT didn’t achieve this, and neither will Linux.

Linux has helped strengthen all the high-end Unix servers in the market and reinforced the heterogeneous way of the world. The way I see it, there will be lots of Linux and a ton of Windows NT and Windows 2000, and it will all be connected to existing and growing systems, with companies exploiting these new technologies to become successful e-businesses.

Having a complete stack of software that enables all applications — including database, groupware, Web servers, and transaction managers — to run on Linux, Windows NT, and many other platforms, makes any decision about Linux easier.

Customer Training and Support

For customers who want to familiarize themselves with Linux’s countless capabilities, IBM offers a full curriculum of Linux education and training courses. Each course focuses on an integral piece of training that Linux users need to run their businesses effectively, ranging from very basic introductions to Linux, to more advanced solution sessions on running a Web site with Apache, to TCP/ IP administration with Linux. As Linux becomes more popular, these training offerings will become increasingly more important to our customers.

IBM provides full 24×7 defect and usage support for Linux. And we don’t treat Linux in isolation. Rather, it is supported as part of a complete environment. IBM’s worldwide team is ready to work at providing our customers with e-business solutions for the Linux environment. But the support services we have in place for these solutions are just as important to our customers.

Growing Together

Rather than being the big, bad bully, our idea is to collaborate with and help the communities that work with Linux and open source. We have learned a great deal from our work with the Apache Group, and Linux has helped us turn up our sensitivity dials even further.

We were feeling the “pain” after we put up a sign that said “Building the Linux Community” in our first booth at LinuxWorld back in March. The gesture wasn’t meant to be arrogant, but people saw it that way. In retrospect, we should have said “Supporting the Linux Community.” We blew it and received criticism for it. Fair enough. We are learning.

We see open source as helping to drive and promote open standards. That is why our Jikes compiler and XML parsers are available in open source versions. We are excited about our license agreement. IBM brings a business focus to open source licensing. We are GPL-like, but we let you take our IPL (IBM Public License) code and bundle it with other code under different licensing terms.

As I look at some of our competitors, I see licensing terms that are onerous and miss the point. I see software being thrown into open source as if it will save bad technology. Within IBM, a team needs to go through some hoops if it wants to open source code — and most of these hoops are to ensure that we “do it the right way.” We have dedicated developers working with the community before the code goes out to make sure we’re doing the right thing.

And there is a knowledge base to work from, which was illustrated during a recent IBM Personal Software Group meeting. The discussion there was centering on the need to write a Linux ServeRAID driver, an idea that was initially shot down. People were arguing that it would “cost a million dollars and take a million years” to develop this. But thank goodness for youthful enthusiasm. A twentysomething in the room announced he had already done it — in his spare time at night.

So, if you are a doubting Thomas, I leave you with this thought: IBM is serious, cool, and committed when it comes to Linux. We’re involved. Now, I do not plan to grow a ponytail in the near future, but I am always open to suggestions.

Jon Prial is the director of integrated solutions and Linux marketing with IBM. He can be reached at jonprial@us.ibm.com.

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