What's behind IBM's Linux plans?

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  • New: IBM's Daniel Frye on Big Blue's Linux roadmap (6:46; RA, WM)
  • NEWS ANALYSIS -- During his seven-year tenure, IBM chairman and CEO Lou Gerstner has never been reluctant to give his army new marching orders. Recently, he told the IBM troops, as well as the larger world, that the computer giant would move to Linux with full dispatch. If IBM can execute on its Linux plans, this already fast-moving operating system could gain ground even more quickly in the enterprise space.

    The size of IBM's commitment is notable. In a keynote earlier this month at the eBusiness Conference Expo in New York City, Gerstner pledged to devote nearly $1 billion to Linux development next year.

    IBM's interest in Linux is not new, and the eye-popping billion-dollar figure is really a hodgepodge that includes individual funding efforts already well under way. But IBM's push could be important to enterprise software managers now getting an earful on Linux from their frontline developers and systems administrators.

    IBM's Linux effort may prove akin to its earlier efforts to promote the Java programming language. After competitor Sun Microsystems originated the language, IBM worked hard to promote it across its diverse platforms, to add enterprise attributes to Java, and to shepherd it toward standardization. IBM's inability to loosen Java from Sun's proprietary grasp proved to be a cause of contention between the two firms over the course of the past year.

    In the Linux space, IBM need not try as hard to get along with Sun. In fact, IBM sees Linux as a weapon to dislodge Sun's Solaris brand of Unix -- and a range of SPARC servers -- from a primary position in the market for network infrastructure servers. While a call from customers to support Linux partly drives Gerstner's latest strategy, the desire to unseat Sun is also clearly important to IBM.

    Behind the numbers

    Some of IBM's first Linux ports came about for the same reason they do in other organizations. The technical staff went ahead and did it on evenings and weekends. A long list of ports and porting plans covering IBM technology ranging from MQ series middleware to DB2 database software, and from the PowerPC processor to the S/390 mainframe, have marked recent years. The company sped up its Linux programs this summer when it announced $200 million initiatives to promote Linux among its European and Asian Pacific customers. Both programs include the founding of several new Linux development centers.

    When Gerstner arrives at a billion-dollar figure for Linux development, he is including marketing, training, services, and other budget miscellany. He said 1,500 developers are now dedicated to Linux-enabling products; in the company's 1999 annual report, 500 developers were listed as Linux specialists.

    At IBM these days, "everybody's got Linux as a high-priority part of their budget," said Daniel D. Frye, director of the Linux Technology Center, IBM Enterprise Systems Group. What is new, he noted, is a central group charged with setting Linux strategy across the company.

    To back up its words, IBM has made some big Linux deals of late. This month the company reported it will work with Shell International Exploration and Production to create the world's largest Linux supercomputer, comprising 1,024 IBM X-Series servers packaged in 32 racks. The company also announced that Scandinavian telecomm giant Telia would install an IBM mainframe and an IBM Shark storage system, both running on Linux, to host ISP operations. Telia will replace 70 exiting Web-hosting Unix servers with a single IBM S/390 G6 server simultaneously hosting more than 1,500 Linux server personalities. IBM customer Keio University in Japan, Gerstner noted in his speech, is integrating two campus networks supporting 15,000 users with Linux.

    IBM also just announced the availability of the DB2 Universal Database for Linux on Intel-based clusters, and a mainframe-based WebSphere application server for Linux.

    Shooting at Sun

    The move to Linux is customer driven. But who among the customers do the driving? Traditionally, the move has been promoted "from the technology staff as opposed to the CIO's office," Frye said, "but we're seeing that beginning to change." Increasingly, he said, people see a benefit in Linux specifically and in open source generally. His boss, Gerstner, echoed this sentiment in his recent keynote, when he said Sun, EMC, and Microsoft are "running the last big proprietary plays we'll see in this industry for a long time to come."

    Beating Sun at the server game is also on the minds of Gerstner and company. "Linux is what we're going to use to compete with Sun in the Web space," said Frye.

    "We see it as our vehicle to displace Sun," he asserted.

    The proposed displacement comes at the low- to mid-tier of Web sever technology, where Sun has been strong, but where Linux has been strong as well.

    "IBM first and foremost has to satisfy its customers. Its customers are asking for help with Linux, " said analyst Pierre Fricke, the executive vice president of Web applications programs at D.H. Brown Associates. Meanwhile, Fricke said, Linux on Intel hardware has market potential that IBM seeks to exploit.

    "Linux is gaining strength as a Web server, with open source databases, and in [technical computer] clustering," he said. "It is also taking over the low end of the Unix Intel server space."

    According to Dan Kusnetzky, the vice president of System Software Research at IDC, Linux is seeing increasing usage as part of the basic IT infrastructure at many organizations. IBM has positioned itself well to be considered one of the leading suppliers in this emerging market, Kusnetzky said.

    If IBM gains in the emerging class of NetGen (or network generation) companies, said D.H. Brown's Fricke, it gains new customers -- customers that want open source software.

    One more OS

    In a company that supports so many operating systems, one more may not be an overwhelming undertaking. Among IBM operating systems, AIX may be most vulnerable to Linux incursions. Analyst Fricke does not see this as an issue. "AIX customers don't throw it away," he said.

    But he and other viewers see wider Linux use as it gains maturity. "The enterprise Unixes are still ahead, especially on [non-Intel-class] machines," Fricke said, "But Linux is moving up the pipe."

    He adds: "In three years it is conceivable that Linux can satisfy 95 percent of customers that use Unix today."

    Those are the types of numbers that IBM leader Gerstner is looking at as he plots the next course for his company.

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