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 Thinkpad laptops.
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 help it."
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 system.
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 profits.
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 enterprises.
"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 F50.
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 here.
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 production environments.
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 group Illuminata.
"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 added.
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.
"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 market.
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