Linux's Unlikely Supporter: IBM
A spray painted message appeared last spring in several San Francisco neighborhoods. Created with a template and what appeared to be black paint (but turned out to be biodegradable chalk), the message was written not in English, but in post-modern hieroglyphics: a peace sign, a heart, and a penguin. For most San Franciscans, the meaning was about as clear as, well, hieroglyphics. But the open source cognoscenti could easily decode it: "Peace, Love, and Linux."
If the message was supposed to evoke San Francisco's hippy days, the messenger was anything but. That most staid of computer companies, IBM, was behind this bit of creative vandalism (although its ad agency actually played the graffiti artist). City officials were not happy. They pointed out that the signs were punishable by a $500 fine or by community service. IBM promised that all would wash away in the next rain (it didn't quite), and moved its advertising campaign to the more conventional media of billboards and bus signs.
If this guerilla ad campaign seems unusual for the conservative Big Blue, the combination of IBM and Linux might also seem at first like a culture clash of the first order. But IBM is no stranger to open software standards, having been an early embracer and developer of Java. And as a company that still manufactures in all three hardware tiers---mainframes, minicomputers, and microcomputers---IBM stands to benefit from an operating system that runs across all of them. Even if that OS was developed by programmers with a taste for anarchy, a disdain for large corporations, and a liking for an Antarctic bird.
While nobody's keeping track, IBM probably represents the most extensive Linux development effort in the world under one corporate roof. The company's commitment to the OS is matched only by Hewlett-Packard and Compaq. In a report issued last July, before the proposed HP-Compaq merger, the research firm Aberdeen Group noted that the three vendors "have the most comprehensive Linux strategies and the best Linux/
Big Blue's attitude toward Linux and other open source technologies is that both open and closed development methods have their place. "A very small minority believes that all software should be free, but the vast majority working in open source believe in the power of the community, in the notion that if you are to tackle complex problems you should collaborate," said Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice president of server strategy for the IBM Server Group. "They are perfectly comfortable with the idea that you collaborate on those pieces needed for the common good and then everyone can go and build proprietary software on top of that work. They have nothing against people making money from software; they just think that open source is the only way to get things done. We are very much in that pragmatic camp."
Two years coming
Linux began sprouting at IBM Research about two years ago. Six months later, the company had embraced it as a corporate strategy. "It became apparent that Linux was becoming very big in the world and could potentially be a big market opportunity for IBM," said Dan Powers, IBM's vice president of Linux Solutions. "We had already begun basing our software strategies around open standards, as well as working closely with the open source community. It was a good meeting of both worlds."
Linux now runs across IBM platforms---Intel-based PCs, the PowerPC-based iSeries (formerly called the AS/
On the software side, IBM's entire software portfolio "has pretty much been brought over to Linux," Powers says, "including WebSphere, Domino, the Lotus products, the Tivoli products, our application development environments and our entire middleware set. We also have over 250 developers in our Linux Technology Centers, which work with the open source community, on kernel enhancements, SMP enhancements, system management, and enterprise-ready functions."
Last June, IBM said that the number of Linux-based enterprise-level applications totaled more than 2,300. Among its development partnerships are SAP, which ported its collaborative environment mySAP.
Developer support for Linux includes IBM Developer Centers, which provide application porting and testing facilities for compliance with IBM middleware and servers. IBM also sponsors the Linux Community Development System, a virtual mainframe server environment accessible from the Web. The program promotes IBM's visual network running on the zSeries mainframe. IBM also has a dedicated Linux website: ibm.
In Japan, IBM announced last May that it has formed a partnership with Fujitsu, Hitachi, and NEC to develop Linux enterprise solutions in the areas of network troubleshooting, scalability, and non-uniform memory access (NUMA).
One of the most intriguing IBM projects involving Linux is the Distributed Terascale Facility (DTF), developed by IBM on behalf of four U.
But clustering is not just for scientists. Back on the enterprise side, IBM is developing a 64-bit version of its DB2 database for the McKinley, which it has demonstrated on a 12-node cluster running Linux. The cluster uses Intel InfiniBand I/
While Linux has stepped up to a high-profile role at IBM, it has not replaced other operating systems. For the zSeries mainframes, the company still promotes the proprietary z/
In the meantime, Linux does not yet play a significant role in IBM's battle with Sun over the high-end server market, where IBM has introduced a 32-way system that competes with Sun's UltraSparc III. The machines run AIX and Solaris, respectively. But one could imagine a future in which high-end, SMP machines run Linux on Intel processors and clones---a server architecture that is about as open as it's going to get. In that scenario Intel and open source would be the big winners, and the hardware companies would differentiate themselves on service, as much as product. In other words, the server market would begin to look suspiciously like the desktop market does, today-with the possible omission of Microsoft.
A conversation with Dan Powers, IBM's vice president, Linux Solutions
Dan Powers is responsible for the Linux strategy for IBM software, hardware, and services. In the past, he developed e-business solutions for several major financial service institutions. He is active in the open source community as a board member to the Jabber Foundation, and corporate advisory member of the Gnome foundation. Powers received his MBA from the Wharton Business School, and a B.
Why Linux at IBM?
We view Linux as the latest in a set of standards that include TCP/
How much work did you need to do to port Linux to run on a mainframe.
The thing we found about Linux while we've been using it is how easy it is to get to different processors. The original port to get to the mainframe took a couple of weeks. To get it production-ready took a bit longer. We're also finding porting most applications over to Linux is relatively easy for the ISPs to do for our customers.
What's going on in Japan specifically or in Asia in general?
We find Asia Pacific is very interested in Linux for performance. There's a tremendous number of developers in Asia Pacific that participate in the Linux efforts. China alone is going to be one of the world's biggest development environments, in terms of number of developers---over 500,000 developers in the next four or five years.
Have you made any special efforts there?
We've done a couple of things. One is our developer site that's set up for Linux. We have a Japanese and a Chinese version of that now. From an internationalization perspective, we have Linux projects going on in Japan and also in China. A lot of software translation and work for those particular geographies are done in our development labs there. In addition, we did a partnership with Hitachi and one or two other technology companies in Japan. They were very interested in combining our Linux-related resources.
How has that been going?
Pretty good. There's been good communications between the teams. It was more a matter of hooking people up that had been working on the same projects together in conjunction with the open source community.
Does IBM view Linux specifically as a server technology. Do you see any potential for it on the client?
I do. A lot of companies that we talk to are starting to do some of the high end graphics. UNIX workstations are already well-established on trading floors on Wall Street, for doing CAD, and for special effects. As people start to do their next refresh of those desktops, we'll see Linux play really well at the desktop area.
I also think we'll start to see more Linux in emerging countries. In India, they are getting old Intel-based PCs, and loading them with Linux to get them into the community. To do projects like that you need really cheap or donated PCs and you need really cheap or free software. That combination favor Linux.
That's a place where Sun has made an impact with its word processor/
Yes, they have an open source software package called Star Office. The open project is called Open Office, and Sun takes that and turns it into a commercial product with support. But for a developing country that is trying to get PCs into the hands of people who can't afford them, the open source version will be preferable. Over time, though, I think we'll see Linux emerge as another desktop operating system that people can use, with enough tools that enterprises might consider using it.
Is IBM contributing in any way to that with any purely client application?
Our development tools run under Linux as well as Windows. The developers usually want to develop on the platform that they are going to run it on.
But no client-based applications, per se?
The tools are a client-based application. Tools are still client-based. That's what the developers like about Linux, is that they can still get themselves a laptop with Linux on it. We ship laptops with Linux pre-loaded.
Do you support any particular graphical user interface?
We usually ship both Gnome and KDE. We haven't made a preference, and I don't think we will. We let the customers make a choice.
Do you start with Red Hat or do you do your own?
No, we use four distributors---Red Hat, SuSE from Germany, Caldera, and Turbo. Turbo and SuSE both have PowerPC distributions, which we use for the iSeries and pSeries. On the mainframe, we've got two distributions that work there, and on the Intel, we've got all four.
When a customer buys any IBM's servers with Linux, we support that operating system and that distribution as if it were an IBM operating system. We provide Level 1, 2, and 3 support, with Level 3 support usually residing in our Linux Technology Centers. We also have contracts with the distributor for Level 3-type problems. I think there's a "Level 4," as well, which is the open source community, where a lot of it does get resolved there, too. But we're responsible for the process of supporting it and getting the fix back to the customers.
Has IBM done work with the kernel on its own?
Yes. But with the kernel, any changes or things that we are working on we always submit back to the open source community for their approval. On the last kernel, the v2.
Linux developed almost as an underground movement. And yet IBM, one of the most staid and entrenched hardware companies, seems to be staking its future on it.
It's a continuation of our strategy of what we've been doing with open source and open standards. We truly have been hearing from customers and believe that this is the right strategy---to base products on open standards and open source.
Even if that means not taking a profit from each seat sold?
I think the operating system is fading into the infrastructure---just like TCP/
Within IBM, how Linux-oriented are you?
Are we eating our own cooking, so to speak? Yes, we are. We have over 400 Linux servers in production now in our infrastructure, running everything from email to virus checking and analysis on email coming in, web servers, web application servers, etc. The other thing too is that our researchers around the world, at the desktop and at servers, always like to load up Linux. At IBM we've had an e-business client for Windows, and now we now one for Linux as well. Anybody in the corporation that would like to get Linux on their laptop or desktop goes to a server, builds a diskette, and does a network install of Linux right across the network to their laptop or desktop.
Can you give me a percentage of CPUs running Linux?
At the desktop, less than 50 percent. You would see a pretty heavy percentage of Linux in our development labs and our research facilities.
Is that where IBM is headed ultimately, to being a pure Linux shop?
From a development perspective, sure. I don't think we're going to have Linux on 50 percent of the desktops and laptops within IBM Corporation any time soon. I don't think you could say that anywhere. Certainly our development projects, our development servers, our researchers have a tremendous affinity with Linux and there is a plethora of Linux in those environments.