IBM roils the Linux waters
By Mark Hall
(IDG) -- If IBM gets its way, users will soon be thinking about operating systems the way investors view pork bellies: as mere commodities. The instrument the company will use to make this sea change in IT? Linux.
The implications of IBM's strategy for corporate IT planners are enormous. It affects everything from in-house development projects to server deployments. And the impact on IBM's competitors could be even more dramatic, say analysts and users.
Enterprise IT managers contemplating a move to Linux say they have much at stake. "We're putting 700 users on a mail system on top of Linux," says Dave Ennen, technical support manager at Winnebago Industries Inc. in Forest City, Iowa. "It's mission-critical."
Ennen's company is in the midst of a major server consolidation effort, taking advantage of Dallas-based Bynari Inc.'s InsightServer groupware application for Linux on an IBM zSeries mainframe. Ennen says the move eliminates the need for 40 Intel-based Windows servers that would have had to be upgraded to Microsoft Exchange and would have required a half-dozen support staff "instead of one or two for the mainframe."
Winnebago, a maker of motor homes and RVs, will run nine or 10 instances of Linux with InsightServer under IBM's virtual machine environment, which permits multiple operating systems to be managed on one system.
That's a big shift within IT away from having scads of Windows servers, but it's also a big hit on the competition. Not only would those 40 servers have run Exchange, but they also would have used Microsoft Windows 2000 Server and SQL Server software. Instead, the corporate e-mail application is running on an all-Big-Blue system.
"Microsoft has caused a lot of grief to IBM over the years. IBM sees Linux as a way to free itself from paying homage to Microsoft," says Al Gillen, an analyst at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.
To be successful in the long run, however, IBM must assuage the skeptics regarding its new role as a contributor in the open-source community that wants to nurture Linux. And, more important, it must give Linux the enterprise-class capabilities IT managers expect from a data-center operating system.
As recently as 1998, IBM had no plans to become a provider of Linux-based products. In August of that year, it shipped the WebSphere Application Server, which runs on the open-source Apache Web server and Linux. It also launched an internal study on Linux's role in the IT industry.
IBM's first Linux technology came in December 1998 from an unsanctioned effort by IBM programmers in Germany, who ported the Linux kernel to the System/390 (now the zSeries mainframe) in their spare time, according to Dan Frye, director of the IBM Linux Technology Center.
Since then, the company has released Linux as an optional operating system on all of its servers. It now runs everything from IBM's DB2 and Domino Notes server software to encryption coprocessors and Tivoli Systems Inc.'s management utilities.
IBM's vice president of Linux, Steve Solazzo, says that what makes Winnebago and other companies choose Linux is that "it turns the operating system into a commodity that can run on any hardware."
This argument has increasing appeal to both independent software vendors like Bynari and users such as Gerry Sztabnik, director of middleware operations at the Security Industry Automation Corp. (SIAC) in New York.
Sztabnik recently completed porting SIAC's brokerage notification application from a Sun Solaris environment to Linux on IBM hardware in two and a half days. Because Linux is Unix at its core, Sztabnik says, porting code from Solaris to Linux is a snap. The underlying C code doesn't need to be modified, and most of the work entails recompiling on new hardware, in his case an IBM zSeries mainframe.
Had Winnebago opted for Exchange on Windows or had SIAC stuck with Solaris, they would have had only one hardware choice on which to run their applications in the future. But with IBM's full product line supporting Linux, IT managers can move their programs from low-end Intel servers to midrange systems or mainframes.
What's more, Sztabnik says, broader industry acceptance of Linux means that SIAC isn't even dependent on IBM as its sole system supplier. For example, both Hewlett-Packard Co. and Compaq Computer Corp. back Linux on their RISC and Intel servers.
As Winnebago's Ennen observes, "If we decided to move the Bynari app off the mainframe, we can do it."
In fact, that's what Paul Watkins did÷in reverse. The network analyst at Newell Rubbermaid Inc. in Freeport, Ill., initially used his open-source multirouter traffic grapher performance-management tool on a low-end Intel server. But when it didn't give him the response time he needed, he moved it over to the company's System/390 running Linux.
"Now it just flies," Watkins says.
As the crown prince of proprietary operating systems, IBM still faces skeptics among open-source developers, says Michael Tiemann, chief technology officer at Red Hat Inc., which supports many of IBM's Linux efforts.
And the competition is even less trusting. "Yes, they do want to commoditize the operating system," says Andy Ingram, vice president of Solaris at Sun Microsystems Inc. "They want to reduce the operating system to the lowest common denominator because that will drive more integration work for their Global Services division."
At Microsoft Corp., doubts go beyond IBM to Linux itself. Doug Miller, director of competitive strategy for the software giant, says he thinks Linux isn't a long-term bet for the data center. "I just don't see it taking over the world," he says.
Miller argues that IT doesn't buy servers and operating systems but rather business applications, which are predominately on Windows.
IBM is well aware of that skepticism and the current lack of data-center-specific software and services, acknowledges distinguished engineer Sheila Harnet, who works on Linux full-time at IBM.
Harnet says she thinks IBM has carefully picked domains where it could credibly contribute to making Linux a stronger enterprise operating system, such as in scalability, print services, file systems, volume management, serviceability and other high-end areas.
And that approach makes sense to IT professionals because, as Ennen puts it, "IBM puts some beef behind Linux."
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