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IBM nears a decade of Linux and open source

As it approaches the end of its first Linux decade, IBM has banked on Linux for growth and innovation. But some wonder whether Big Blue has done enough.

After nearly a decade of active involvement in open source, IBM's commitment to Linux is broad and deep, said Inna Kuznetsova, the director of IBM Linux strategy. This vision of IBM's rapport with Linux is shared by most, but not all, IBM observers.

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As the 10-year anniversary of IBM's Linux involvement nears, Kuznetsova outlined the company's open source accomplishments in a recent interview. The Armonk, N.Y.-based computer and IT services giant ranks among the top Linux users worldwide and is a top Linux software provider, with more than 500 Linux-based middleware products, she said. The company is also immersed in new open source initiatives such as cloud computing and real-time Linux while showcasing Project Big Green, its own IT consolidation project, and the use of Linux to run production at its Fishkill, N.Y., chip fabrication plant.

IBM heads for the clouds and real-time computing
Some of IBM's most current open source initiatives are its cloud computing projects. It is in the process, for example, of building a computing cloud to provide centralized on-demand service for 11 software outsourcing business parks under construction in Wuxi, China, Kuznetsova said. The cloud will offer single-source computing power throughout these parks, which are expected to house 100 companies by 2010, she said.

IBM is also collaborating with Georgia Institute of Technology and Ohio State University to develop a prototype computing cloud that links multiple centers. The joint project aims to development self-management for cloud computing, enabling clouds to balance performance versus availability and to ensure continuous operations.

As for real-time initiatives, in 2006, IBM won an innovation award at Red Hat Summit for its 2006 real-time kernel development project for the U.S. Navy's Zumwalt destroyers. IBM modified the Linux kernel to run in real time using the Java language and the Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) OS. IBM later incorporated the technology into its WebSphere Real Time Java application development environment, which also runs on RHEL.

IBM has pursued four other strategic areas for Linux growth: Project Big Green, business-critical workloads for Linux; expansion of midmarket opportunities, and Linux on the desktop.

With Project Big Green, IBM is itself a showcase for server consolidation and reduction. Its three-year worldwide plan, which started a year ago, aims to cut 8,900 servers to 3,900 on 30 IBM System z mainframes running RHEL or Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise. When complete, the project is expected to reduce energy costs by 80% and achieve an 85% space reduction, she said

Over the past year, as Linux adoption has moved from the edge of the network to mission-critical applications, business-critical workloads, such as enterprise resource planning applications, have become a growth area for IBM, Kuznetsova said. Simultaneously, IT decisions have trickled down from IT chiefs to management. These managers have demonstrated greater support for Linux but also a stronger demand for security, availability and services. IBM has met these needs, with hosted computing on demand on the mainframe running Linux, which is especially helpful for peak workloads, she said.

Given smaller IT departments and less in-house expertise, the small and medium-sized (SMB) market has lagged compared with large enterprises' Linux adoption. So IBM has partnered with independent software vendors to offer Linux OS and middleware software appliance packages installed by USB drive. Earlier this year, IBM also acquired Net Integration Technologies Inc., which sells a server together with all the basic business applications – from email to directory service and backup and recovery -- needed to run a small company.

Finally, IBM now offers the Linux desktop Open Collaboration Client, which runs on Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise, though Kuznetsova admitted that the initiative was initially slow to take off given a lack of applications. But the effort, she said, is doing well now.

IBM committed to Linux? Observers weigh in
To get perspective on IBM's Linux initiatives, we talked to five industry analysts: Gordon Haff, a principal IT adviser at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H.; Jay Lyman, an open source analyst at the 451 Group in New York; Richard Jones, the vice president and service director of Burton Group in Midvale, Utah; Dan Olds, a principal at Gabriel Consulting Group in Beaverton, Ore., and Joe Clabby, a principal of Clabby Analytics in Yarmouth, Maine.

There isn't anything in [IBM's] corporate charter [that obliges it] to make sure that Linux is successful.
Dan Olds,
principalGabriel Consulting Group

Overall, analysts praised IBM's Linux initiatives, saying IBM's early support of Linux has been critical to its success, giving it the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for enterprises, according to Haff. IBM's patents and continuing technology contributions have given it "great credibility" in the open source community, said Lyman.

Despite its substantial initial efforts to promote Linux, IBM's role has shifted. A decade ago, IBM went out on a limb to support Linux at the risk of cannibalizing its own products. It wanted to solve customer problems on any platform, and IBM has stayed true to that commitment, Olds said. But now, some analysts say, IBM has become relatively inactive about Linux when compared with other hardware vendors, considering IBM's size and position. IBM is "ambivalent toward Linux," because it competes with its own products and services, concurred Haff.

Jones was the most critical, calling IBM's support for Linux "inconsistent," saying that IBM views the Linux Technology Center as a "cost center" whose role is to seed innovation and then hand it over to Linux distros for development. IBM, for example, backed away from its Enterprise Volume Management System when the open source community added device driver mappers to Logical Volume Manager. And it backed out of the open source high availability effort after Novell got involved .

"IBM's model is to help start these efforts and when it looks like it's taking off, they back off … and let the open source community take it over," Jones said. He predicted a similar fate for grid technologies. "They put in minimal expense until they can sell hardware and services," he said.

But Clabby said anyone who thinks IBM isn't supportive of open source "hasn't talked to customers." IBM has added value to Linux by strengthening its weaknesses in security, reliability and availability with its own operating system and/or management tools, he said. And IBM's low-cost Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL) processors, available only on Linux, promote the use of open source on the mainframe, he said.

Olds, who worked for IBM and other hardware vendors before becoming a consultant, said some critics of IBM's open source initiatives are "religious zealots" who hold IBM to a higher standard than its competitors.

"IBM is a profit-making company," Olds said. "There isn't anything in its corporate charter to make sure that Linux is successful." For Olds, time and resources applied to Linux are a more appropriate measure of IBM's commitment. And for a diversified hardware and services company, Olds said, IBM has put in far more of its own time and money than any comparable company."

IBM's Kuznetsova said that company commitment to Linux and open source is "a fundamental part" of the company's strategy, and she cited IBM's $1 billion research and development pledge to Linux in 2002 and its third-place ranking for code donations to the Linux kernel. She also cited IBM's code donation of the WebSphere Application Server Community Edition, a Java EE server, which was downloaded for free a million times last year.

"We do have liability to our shareholders, and we are in business to make money, but we also are in business to make Linux better," she said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Pam Derringer, News Writer . And check out Enterprise Linux Log.

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