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IBM's (now) not-so-secret Linux strategy

Two years ago, IBM said it was going to support Linux. It overdelivered. What's ahead for Linux at IBM.

AUSTIN, TX (LinuxWorld) -- It's been two years since IBM's first "Linux Summit." That event was held in Austin in the fall of 1999. I interviewed Robert LeBlanc during that two-day event to learn more about IBM's plans for Linux. With the fifth such summit taking place recently (the third in Austin, two have been held overseas), I was curious about what changes in the strategy IBM may have made since the initial summit. I sat down with Dan Frye, director of IBM's Linux Technology Center, during this summit to learn what has changed, what has stayed the same, and what the future holds for IBM interest in Linux.

Dan Frye, Director of IBM's LTC

Frye is a 14-year veteran of IBM with a background in theoretical atomic physics who describes himself as "not very technical." Before taking his current position at the head of the LTC, Frye worked on the development of the RS6000/SP, both in hardware and software. After transferring to a corporate group responsible for emerging technologies, he asked a simple question: What was IBM's Linux strategy? The question earned him the opportunity to develop one.

Frye's interest in Linux was sparked by a conference he had attended where attendees speculated on what computers would look like in ten years. Several models for future computing were presented. The "computer as commodity" model presentation noted that the operating system would be "Linux, of course." He started to research Linux.

Frye doesn't use Linux on his desktop. He doesn't push Linux because it is "neat technically" or because it is the right thing. He does it because it is good business to do so. In Frye's mind, it is all about providing the customer with choice.

When asked how IBM's Linux strategy has changed over the past two years, Frye said, "The strategy is remarkably similar." IBM, he said, "obviously is much more aggressive around Linux that we were two years ago." But the strategy laid out by LeBlanc has remained constant. They planned to put Linux on all their hardware. They planned to port their software to Linux. They planned to build a service offering around Linux. As Frye said, "Now we've done all that."

In at least one area, Linux on mainframes, the success has been surprising. Two years ago, LeBlanc would say nothing more than Linux on a 390 was something that was being considered. Today there is a national TV ad campaign touting Linux on IBM mainframes as a replacement for a server farm. Frye describes that segment of the market as being "wildly successful."

Repeating a question I asked LeBlanc, I asked Frye if IBM was comfortable working with the Linux/open source community. It seems an odd couple at first glance, this relationship between a global corporation and kernel hackers. But Frye, just as LeBlanc did two years ago, says the two work together well. Frye notes that they both want the same thing. "They want to see Linux grow up. They want to see Linux solve real problems. They are a technically oriented community. If you write good code, you'll be accepted. You write bad code, you'll get flamed. IBM engineers in general like that kind of atmosphere."

That process, of having gone from being a newbie to having become "a valued peer" in the open source community is what Frye sees as IBM's greatest success. Early on IBM focused on learning and listening. IBM did grunt work. Small patches here and there. Documentation for ReadMe's and HowTo's as well. Today IBM not only makes regular contributions in the kernel space (and elsewhere), IBM engineers have earned the level of acceptance that allows them to speak out when they think a maintainer or part of the community is wrong.

It seems there are always differences of opinion on matters of import being argued among the kernel maintainers.  Most currently, the debate over which VM has been running hot and heavy.  Because the proponents in this case are primarily Torvalds and Cox, some have begun to fear a split.

I asked Frye if he were concerned. His reply reflects familiarity with both the issue and the process. "No. Because this is the way the community works. The community works by trying out different things," Frye said. "You know, you can argue this in a theoretical sense, but the community doesn't work that way. The community works by trying multiple paths and seeing which one is best. It is a very flexible group that will conclude which one is best, and this microfork will heal itself."

IBM, Microsoft, and the Linux desktop

Has this coziness with Linux harmed IBM's relationship with Microsoft? Not to hear Frye tell it. Frye describes that relationship as being stronger than ever, saying, "This is not Microsoft versus Linux. This is about choice. What IBM brings to the table is the ability to not give customers a single choice but to find the best choice to meet their problems."

Other things have not changed. IBM still views Linux as a server solution, not as a desktop entity. When I asked a hypothetical question, assuming that the antitrust case results in Microsoft no longer being able to punish or reward vendors for offering other products in standalone or dual-boot configurations, if IBM would begin to preload Linux, he said no, not unless customers demanded it. They just don't see a market for Linux on the desktop, yet. If and when they see demand for Linux on the desktop, Frye says they will find a way to provide it their customers.

IBM still has no interest in offering its own Linux distribution. As Frye put it, "The Linux business model for IBM is straightforward: We sell the hardware underneath it, we sell the software on top of it, and we sell the services all around it. The fact that we don't sell the thin layer Linux operating system is frankly irrelevant."

As to the future, IBM sees Linux as having a vital role in the years ahead. The reasons for that are that it will be able to do more and it will be easier to use. Frye said, "You're going to see it do things at the middle of the enterprise. You are also going to see increasing Linux on appliances, on small devices, in the embedded space. You are going to see it in less technically advanced shops as well. As it continues to get easier to manage, more robust, then you don't have to have a highly technical shop."

The summit attendees reflect the changes that have ocurred over the past two years. Frye said of the initial summit that it was "It was almost an anti-establishment era, the people who were coming around were Linux enthusiasts. Few people at that first summit had a job that had to do with making Linux successful." He concluded by saying "Two years ago we had 300 Linux enthusiasts coming together at the summit. Today we have 300 Linux professionals coming together to talk about what we are going to do... and the 300 is just a small fraction of the people at IBM who are working on Linux every day.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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