IBM Poised to Become Linux Industry Leader

Part of open-source world remains wary

This week, IBM will announce several Linux initiatives that should help quicken its pace to take a leading position - if not the top spot - among Linux systems vendors.

At an event in New York, IBM will unveil new electronic-business programs and development tools for Linux, as well as a bundle of Linux applications for small businesses. Observers say these moves will deepen IBM's influence while many high-profile Linux companies are faltering on Wall Street because of doubts about their long-term viability.

"IBM is unusual in that it provides the entire range of hardware, software and services to Linux customers worldwide," said Cliff Miller, chairman of San Francisco-based TurboLinux Inc., a major Linux distributor. "In that sense, it brings great credibility to Linux."

IBM is currently No. 2 in Linux server sales, according to International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.

Know Your Source

IBM first took serious notice of Linux in the fall of 1998. A task force was formed under Robert LeBlanc, IBM's vice president of software strategy, to see how the company could exploit the emerging open-source phenomenon.

"Part of this early work was understanding how this open-source community works," explained Dick Sullivan, IBM's software group's vice president of solutions and integration marketing.

Jon Prial, who was a member of the task force, said the group was careful to not raise the ire of testy and vocal open-source voices such as

According to Pierre Fricke, an analyst at D. H. Brown Associates Inc. in Port Chester, N.Y., "Of all commercial companies, IBM has the closest ties" to the Linux community.

All IBM divisions are offering Linux wares. IBM is selling Intel-based NetFinity servers that are preloaded with Linux and intends to add it to other PC systems, including ThinkPad laptops. The company is also porting Linux to its Power 4 processor, which runs its RS/6000 systems, and recently announced support for Linux on S/390 mainframes.

Most important for longtime customers, IBM's Global Services division is offering Linux technical support and consulting. IBM has 400 Linux consultants in the U.S. and Canada, said Katalin Walcott, a Linux solutions executive at IBM Global Services.

Part of what has driven IBM to embrace Linux is customer demand. "The key point for IBM is that they first and foremost help their customers," said Fricke. "It may be a cliche, but that's what they do. And right now, customers are asking about Linux."

But Irving Wladawsky-Berger, the chief Linux strategist at IBM (see interview, this page), said the company sees Linux as more than just another operating system to sell hardware or services; rather, it's on par with Java, TCP/IP and the Internet programming language HTML as a multiplatform industry standard.

In the Linux market, IBM faces far less competition than in the PC or server markets. Linux "is a wide-open field," Fricke said. "You don't have to fear a competitor who will use the operating system against you. And on the Internet, it's more popular than NT."

Preparing for the Enterprise

Linux also gives IBM a second shot at becoming a player in volume operating systems, said Ransom Love, president and CEO of Linux distributor Caldera Systems Inc. in Orem, Utah. "They have attempted to play in the commodity operating system area before but have failed," Love said. "Linux accomplishes their objective with a fraction of the resources needed to do it themselves."

But even Linux advocates acknowledge that the operating system isn't yet ready for all tasks. Although it runs Web servers well and can scale in "shared-nothing" clusters, it's not as good at transaction processing or handling symmetric multiprocessing systems that have more than four processors.

IBM is working with open-source groups to overcome those deficiencies, Fricke said.

Its Linux Technology Center, led by Daniel Frye, consists of 50 people who contribute to multiple open-source projects.

Proceeding With Caution

"Our mission is to do anything we can to speed up Linux (and) make Linux better for the enterprise," Frye said.

He said he's aware that IBM's sheer size means it has to proceed carefully - many open-source advocates fear the company will attempt to force the community's hand by making a move such as launching its own Linux distribution.

"If they (launch their own Linux), all other major players will follow with their own 'flavor,' and Microsoft will again have an opportunity to come out with their own Linux or new-generation NT," said Love.

Miller said IBM's size may also make the company too slow to do well in the Linux market. "Whether it is nimble enough to be able to execute in this fast-paced Linux world will determine to some extent its place in the future," said Miller. "So far, it has done well."

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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