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LinuxWorld preview: What are the Unix vendors' plans for Linux?

Columnist Kenneth Milberg offers his take on which vendor to watch at LinuxWorld, and whether their strategies will actually improve Linux based-technologies.

Got your tickets yet to San Francisco? LinuxWorld is just around the corner, and promises to be very exciting this year. As a Unix veteran, I'm excited to see HP and IBM -- the leading old-guard Unix vendors -- making a big effort at LinuxWorld and in the Linux world. Look for keynotes by Martin Fink, HP vice president of Linux, and by Nick Donofrio, IBM's senior vice president of technology and manufacturing. As for Sun's surly support of Linux, well, it's Sun's loss.

Just so you go to LinuxWorld with the back story in hand, here's a look at Unix vendors' current Linux strategies. This way, when you hear the keynotes, you'll know the difference between a stunning announcement and a restatement of the status quo.

IBM started off in Linux with a big $1 billion investment in 2001. IBM is currently projecting industry-wide Linux expenditures to grow at an average annual rate of 35% through 2006.

During LinuxWorld last year, IBM announced new customer adoption and independent software vendor support of Linux on POWER processor-based systems. So can IBM beat last year's announcements? You bet. In fact, IBM got a jump on the show, introducing its new server architecture, eServer p5, on July 13.

The new IBM eServer p5 server will contain virtualization technology, available up until now only on the mainframe. Essentially, you will be able to run Unix and Linux operating systems on the same CPU. Got that? On the same CPU, not only on the same physical box, which you can already do today with Regatta and logical partitioning (LPAR technology). That's going to make it a lot easier for Unix shops to adopt Linux and use both OSes together.

The p5's virtualization capabilities include micro-partitioning, which allows for the creation of dynamic logical partitions (virtual servers) that can be as small as a tenth of a processor. It provides for a pool of processing power that can be shared between partitions. There are also significant innovations with I/O and networking, which relate to the virtualization. The new chip also allows for simultaneous multi-threading, meaning that each processor can look like two to the operating system, which should increase performance dramatically.

I'm excited about the p5 advances, and any Unix shop that runs some Linux and wants to run more should be, too. The IBM booth should be jumping this year! Besides that, IBM is holding a press conference on Aug. 3 at LinuxWorld.

HP, to its credit, is the only vendor that came up with an indemnity program for businesses nervous about the various SCO lawsuits. HP has beefed up internally on the Linux front by creating its internal Linux Systems Operation (LSO) to direct corporate Linux strategy.

HP said that one out of every seven of its servers runs Linux, and there have been more than 10 million Linux installs of Red Hat and/or SuSE distributions from the HP site worldwide. That's big business, adding up to Linux-based revenue in excess of $2.5 billion for fiscal 2003.

Recently, HP announced plans to sell a low-cost Linux-based HP Multi-user 441 desktop computer in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, within nine months. I'm hoping there will be some Linux desktop announcements for the U.S. at LinuxWorld. Keep your fingers crossed.

Overall, despite significant investments, I don't see HP making any big technology advancements in the Linux arena. Essentially, it's HP's technology and Linux runs on it. Maybe HP will have a surprise at LinuxWorld. A good x86 announcement would make my day.

I must say, however, that what HP may lack in technology advancements, it certainly makes up for in Linux support and service. Users tell me that HP's support response for Linux has allayed all their fears about Linux support.

So what is going on with Sun and Linux? Well, Sun finally put a Linux portal on its site,, but the last Linux announcement on it is dated May 2003. That's last year! Yep, not much is happening with Linux at Sun. I mean, what does it really mean when Sun's execs talk about bringing Linux and Solaris to the x86 platform? Solaris on the PC has been around forever and who really uses it anymore?

To me, it looks like Sun is giving up on servers and focusing on the desktop. Wal-Mart, the No. 1 retailer in the world, has started selling Microtel PCs with the Sun version of Linux. Sun did get the jump on HP there.

HP has signed a deal with SuSE for the desktop, but distribution won't happen until the latter end of the year. Red Hat is also planning its desktop attack on Microsoft, but that also is not ready yet. In my opinion, however, if Sun is serious about focusing on the desktop, it needs to throw some more weight toward its efforts. Linux has not made strides on the desktop as much as the server side, and it will not be easy to take on the Microsoft empire. It's not impossible either, but will Sun break out of its Linux lethargy to carry the Linux desktop banner?

The Unix Big Three -- IBM, HP and Sun -- did not get where they are today by not being smart. You could argue, however, that they and the users would be a bit further ahead if they'd caught on to Linux sooner. But, at least two of them caught on and moved ahead quickly. They deserve a lot of credit for making Linux the major market force it is today.

I believe that HP and IBM will continue to slug it out on the server side, and Sun will focus more on the desktop. IBM will lead in technology improvements, with HP -- and maybe even Sun -- putting in some good work in on the x86 side.

It would make me happy to hear at LinuxWorld that these vendors will translate their Linux lip service into more monies spent toward improving Linux based-technologies. In the end, it will not only serve their interests, but ours as well.

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