Friendly, Big and Blue

More then any other large traditional technology company, IBM has embraced the open source community. But what is their long-term strategy for Linux? Read on...

IBM montage

Maybe you can credit the 1996 Olympics. That was the year IBM chose to showcase a 53-node RS/6000 SP system as the brawn behind the brains of the Atlanta Olympics. As millions of fans logged on, Big Blue’s machine kept pace, doling out real time event results in what was considered a major PR success for stodgy old IBM as it tried to prove that it too was a contender in the newly emerging Internet space.

There was just one catch. The Web server software running IBM’s olympic site wasn’t from IBM. It was Apache.

Within two years of its Olympic success, IBM had publicly recognized the folly of developing its own Web server software and had thrown its efforts behind the open source Apache effort. The decision, made in 1998, was a pragmatic one. IBM’s internally developed WebSphere Web server was not getting much traction in the Internet space, and the company wanted to base the rest of its WebSphere middleware on industry-standard software. “The only way we could get mindshare was to pick up one of the top three Web servers,” remembers James Barry, a VP of strategic initiatives at Collab.net, who was a program director with IBM at the time. “Microsoft and Netscape didn’t work out, so that left us with Apache,” he adds. This was the first, cautious step for IBM, the open source company.

IBM’s relationship with open source code goes back farther than Apache. The company has supported BIND and Sendmail on its AIX Unix for years, and back to the 1960s IBM would routinely provide source code to buyers of its brand new line of System 360 computers. According to IBM’s Linux Technology Center Program Director Daniel Frye, “Much of the software around the S/360 was ‘open source.’” He adds, “Community helped write it. It was generally available to customers…It didn’t exactly meet the current definition of Open Source, but it was close.”

The difference in 1998 was that for the first time IBM had chosen an open source offering over a viable commercial alternative. The Apache decision ended up being a great success for IBM, setting the precedent for the company’s involvement in community development projects. And, more importantly, it put IBM on the cutting edge of the Internet. While competitors like Compaq and Sun Microsystems have stumbled in their adoption of open source technology, IBM’s Apache relationship proved to be the model of how a traditional company can work best with the open source world.

There’s a Method to their Method

IBM’s Home-Grown Bazaar

IBM screen shot
Open on the Inside: The front page of IBM’s IOSB.

It’s the buzzword-du-jour in Linux these days: Gated communities. These are communities of developers that use the open source method-ology, but control exactly who is allowed to participate. In fact, the term was coined in a brainstorming session with O’Reilly & Associates CEO Tim O’Reilly and some IBM-ers, including Daniel Frye and Steve Burbeck.

And Frye’s team is practicing what they brainstorm. This spring, they snarfed the source code to VA Linux Systems’ SourceForge and set up their own internal version of the collaborative open source development service, called the IBM Internal Open Source Bazaar. IBM’s Bazaar, which is open to IBM employees only, is starting small, with a handful of driver and porting projects and just over 50 developers. But, according to Frye, it’s been very well received.

Does this mean that IBM will soon be offering gated communities to its customers — a place where Fortune 500 customers could get source code to Domino, for example? Probably not. Frye says his team hasn’t yet seen a place where it would make sense. “In every case we’ve thought about that,” he says, “we decided the better thing to do was to go all the way Open Source.”

Birth of a Strategy

A few months after IBM went public with its work on Apache, Daniel Frye brought up Linux at a regular meeting of IBM’s software division’s Emerging Strategy Group. Frye had been working with the scientific community and had noticed that Linux was on the minds of “some very bright people” within the scientific community. However, Linux was virtually unknown within IBM. The response from his peers at the meeting: “You brought it up; you go figure it out,” remembers Frye.

So he did, e-mailing out a one-page description of what was going on with Linux. That one-page description got the attention of IBM’s VP of technical strategy, Carla Gude. From there, “it was just a snowball,” says Frye. By October of 1998 one of IBM’s most influential thinkers, Larry Loucks (a.k.a. the “father of AIX”) had laid down the groundwork for a formal Linux strategy in a white paper that was presented to IBM’s executive team.

“We were interested and quite supportive of this notion of open source before we got involved in the Linux discussion,” remembers Loucks “We had done a fair amount of work with Apache, and we were interested in the notion of open source as a development activity. As well, we could see this groundswell of servers in the Internet space, which is a space that not just IBM, but every human in the world who sells software or hardware is interested in.”

Consistently, the message came back to IBM: Customers who were building the next generation of Internet companies(the startup dot-coms and Internet service providers) were using Linux. If IBM wanted to reach these customers, it needed to start selling Linux.

But, convincing the product line managers within IBM’s own Byzantine organizational structure proved to be more difficult than getting sign-offs from the visionaries. “The thing that people did not understand,” says Frye, “was how constructive open source development is, how disciplined the process is, how good the code that comes out of it is. [Convincing everyone of this] actually took a little while.”

At this point, the Linux impetus was coming from within Frye’s group at IBM — the software group that was responsible for the Web- Sphere, DB2, Tivoli and the Lotus product lines. At the very least, Linux represented a new platform for the IBM software to run on, but not all product managers were initially convinced that a Linux port could be easily done. They would say, “The bill is 1,000 years and one million people; we can’t do it,” says Frye. However, it was not uncommon for IBM developers — many of them Linux enthusiasts — to have already completed Linux ports of their own. They would then surprise their managers by showing them working code when the question of a Linux port was raised. By late fall of 1998, those same product managers were now coming back to Dan Frye saying, “We really pulled the team together and got it done.” Frye remembers, “The truth was that three guys in a closet ported it over a weekend. That proved how modular and well-designed Linux was. Management was saying ‘we can’t do it; it’s too expensive,’ and in early December the team had it done.” A typical port, IBM’s DB/2 database for Linux was released several weeks ahead of plan.

Since those first tentative steps, IBM has emerged as a leading force in the Linux space. It is now supporting Linux on many of its different hardware systems (RS/6000, the System 390 mainframes, even the AS/400 minicomputers) and you can order Linux preinstalled on Intel systems from IBM.com. By fall of this year, IBM hopes to release compatibility interfaces that will allow Linux software to run on its proprietary Unix, AIX.

A Particularly IBM Opportunity

“To be honest, we’d open source just about anything the [Linux] community wanted.” Irving Wladawsky-Berger

While its competitors — Compaq, Hewlett Packard, Dell and Sun — have been tentative or even confused about how best to approach Linux, IBM has continued its steady march toward becoming a bona fide Linux company. It has found itself in the unusual position of leading the charge into this hot new technology area. “IBM has done far more and made a greater investment in Linux than any other major vendor,” says International Data Corp. (IDC) Program Vice President Dan Kusnetzky. “It has ported DB2, VisualAge for Java, MQseries, and Domino. It has taken steps to certify a large percentage of its Intel and PowerPC systems. It has begun the long process of building up a Linux practice in its global services organization…the list is pretty impressive.”

The man in charge of IBM’s Linux efforts, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, says that Linux fits into that rare category of technologies that IBM executives call “disruptive.” This means it gets the attention of senior management. The company’s CEO, Lou Gerstner, has apparently been briefed on Linux and Open Source close to a half-dozen times in the last two years, according to IBM executives.

“I would put Linux in the category of the Internet,” says Wladawsky-Berger. “This is a very big deal. There are very few things that you put in that category.” According to him, one of the things that has IBM’s attention is the cross platform nature of Linux, which has been ported to a myriad of hardware platforms. “It affects hardware servers, client devices, software services, solutions across all of IBM,” he notes. “The fact that Linux is the first OS that is vendor-neutral and the fact that it runs on everybody’s platform means that it really could become the reference platform for all application development.”

Collab.net’s James Barry, who helped shepherd IBM’s Apache effort, puts it more bluntly. “The beauty of Linux is that it’s a bottom-up strike on NT,” he says, “Microsoft’s got a real struggle here in terms of how to deal with this phenomenon.”

IDC’s Kusnetzky agrees. “Although no one has come out and said this, it appears to me that there are some IBM staff members who are taking great joy in watching Linux do to Microsoft what Microsoft did to IBM’s OS/390, OS/2, and OS/400.”

There is no doubt that any technology that offers IBM freedom from its erstwhile OS rival in Washington state is welcome, but Wladawsky-Berger sees Linux as more than simply a non-Microsoft option. “We think Linux could do for applications what the Internet did for networking,” he says, “that is, become the standard of choice for developing apps.”

This is a very new way for IBM to be talking about Linux. One former executive says that the change in IBM’s approach is palpable. “A year ago it was exploratory. It was ‘Let’s go and satisfy our customers in the Internet space who are looking for Linux,’” recalls Barry, who left IBM in October of 1999. “Now Linux is not just for Web-serving. It’s broader. It’s basically a low-end solution that offers customers file, print, Web servers, Web applications, and various industry solutions. It went from exploratory mode,” he says, “to this real ‘Let’s go play ball and be a leader.’”

For More on IBM…

An in-depth interview with IBM’s Linux maven, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, can be found on Linux Magazine’s Web site at http://www.linux-mag.com/online/iv_irvingwb_01.html

Beyond the Big Blue Beast

IBM may be ready to play ball these days, but it has made a few errors in the past. The initial iteration of its IBM Public Source License (which covered IBM’s first complete open source release, the Jikes Java compiler) contained a clause that allowed IBM to essentially revoke the license at its own discretion. Aware that it could easily be perceived as an 800-pound-gorilla in the open source space, IBM modified its Public Source License a few months after it was criticized. The Public Source License problems were not an epic controversy, in part because of luck. Jon Prial, who was IBM’s director of Linux marketing at the time, remembers, “As soon as the flaw in the IBM license got caught, Apple released their [open source-like license], and there was so much turmoil around the Apple license that they forgot about us.”

The public perception of IBM as an arrogant company is constantly on the minds of IBM executives like Prial. According to him, the company toyed with the idea of doing its own Linux distribution at first, but backed off the idea for fear of being seen as trying to control Linux. “We did not want to be Slashdotted,” says Prial. “When the DB/2 beta hit Slashdot, the downloads increased 20-fold. We knew the Slashdot effect was there, and then we began to watch it and learn about getting Slashdotted. We did not want to be on the negative side of that.”

But, IBM did get on the “negative side” of Slashdot in late 1999 when it announced a Red Hat Linux certified ThinkPad that shipped with a modem that could not be used with Linux. This certification of a Winmodem-packing computer was more of a black eye for IBM’s PR department than a serious issue for the Linux community. By-and-large, IBM has set the corporate standard for responsible community behavior.

The company gets no complaints from noted Linux developer Alan Cox. “I was originally skeptical,” he admits, “however, we have the S/390 port, a lot of drivers, and other good code coming from IBM. At the same time, how-ever, IBM is one of the most aggressive patenters of obvious ideas…”

Cox’s reluctance to become completely warm and fuzzy about IBM is understandable. This is the company that the original PC revolutionaries compared to Big Brother, after all. And, even if IBM has truly turned around its corporate culture, its embrace of Linux has chiefly come at the expense of Microsoft’s Windows 2000, a fact that is unlikely to keep many IBMers up at night.

However, in the next year, IBM may find itself a little more firmly conflicted in its Linux strategy as the focus of its high-end Unix systems switches from the PowerPC-based RS/6000 series to machines based on Intel’s 64-bit chip, called Merced. Though Linux does run on the PowerPC architecture, it is exponentially more popular on Intel systems. So right now, IBM can comfortably sell Linux on Intel and AIX on PowerPC. With Merced, it will be faced with a conundrum: at what point does their proprietary Unix operating system (formerly code-named Monterey), now several years and hundreds of millions of dollars into development, compete with Linux?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger thinks the line between the two will be clearly demarcated. “[Linux] is better than almost any operating system for environments that are highly dedicated,” he says, “But for it to handle a very dynamic transaction database environment…that’s where you need a lot of kernel work…so I can see a world where Linux becomes the main operating system on IA-64, except for those environments that have these very dynamic characteristics, and in those cases, you would then use AIX.”

How far Linux will go into the enterprise depends on more than just the commercial vendors, adds Wladawsky-Berger. “To be honest, we’d open source just about anything the [Linux] community wanted,” he says, but the real question is how far does the Linux community want Linux to go? One of the reasons why Linux outperforms operating systems like Solaris and AIX on single and dual processor machines is that it is presently unencumbered by enterprise features like 64-way SMP (Symmetrical Multi-Processing) and advanced transactional capabilities. “You get to the question: Is the community more interested in running transactions than in running on televisions and watches,” says Wladawsky-Berger.

Show Me the Code

Amongst the old school Linux community, the reaction to IBM seems to echo Alan Cox’s sentiments of cautious optimism. After all, this is the company famous for its iron grip on the computer industry all throughout the 1970s. Though he is by no means a fan of any proprietary software company, even Free Software stalwart Richard Stallman was able to muster a kind word for IBM — sort of — in a Linux Magazine interview conducted after the company had amended its Public Source License. “I have a higher opinion of IBM, because they’re not a 100 percent proprietary software company anymore,” said Stallman.

Big Blue is showing no signs of abandoning support for its proprietary operating systems, and it certainly isn’t going to drop Windows 2000 in favor of Linux any time soon. Yet it has raised its currency in the Linux space by learning from its mistakes and, most importantly, contributing code. It has released a journaling filesystem under the GPL and announced plans to GPL its logical volume manager. Daniel Frye says that other significant pieces of AIX software are under consideration as well, including the parts of the IP stack (IPv6 and IPSec), clustering software, and an enterprise print management system. So long as the company plays nice with the rest of Linuxdom and so long as it keeps the code contributions coming, it seems that IBM’s Linux stock will continue to rise, bit by bit.

May the Source be With You

IBM Technology that has been open sourced:

-Jikes Compiler

-Open Visualization Data Explorer

-IBM Journaling Filesystem

-Logical Volume Management Architecture (promised, not yet released)

-Secure Mailer

-Linux for the S/390 mainframe

-Linux Utility for cluster Install (LUI)

-SashXB development tool

Timeline: Opening Up:Big Blue’s March Toward Open Source

Spring 1995

IBM technicians hack together HTTP server to run the Web site for the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament.

Summer 1996

IBM’s 53-way Atlanta Olympics Web server runs Apache.

March 1998

IBM contacts Apache developer Brian Behlendorf, looking to contribute to the Apache project. Unbeknownst to Behlendorf, Big Blue has decided to drop its proprietary Web server and adopt the open source Apache across all product lines.

December 1998

DB/2 port released.

August 1998

Spurred by its buzz in the scientific community, Dan Frye begins investigating the Linux Market.

December 1998

IBM releases first open source license: The IBM Public Source License. Six months later, after pressure from the community, it revises the license to make it Open Source-compliant.

March 1999

IBM unveils comprehensive Linux strategy. The company still does not pre-install the OS on its hardware, but officially supports four Linux distributions on IBM hardware.

December 1999

A group of IBM developers completes a skunkworks port of Linux to the S/390 mainframe computer.

January 2000

Internet visionary Irving Wladawsky-Berger gets the call to head up IBM’s Linux efforts. Control of the Linux initiative switches from IBM’s Software group to Enterprise Systems Group.

February 2000

IBM gets serious about Linux, announcing plans to ship Linux systems across all Intel product lines.

July 2000

IBM announces plans to spend $200 million over the next four years developing the European Linux market. The company also creates its first TV ad for Linux, which it plans to air this fall in the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

Robert McMillan is executive editor of Linux Magazine. He can be reached at bob@linux-mag.com.

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