IBM's Linux Lovefest Gets Networked

by David Penn

International Business Machines (IBM) announced that its network computer terminals now run Linux. IBM also announced it would soon post configuration instructions on its web site, as well as a forum for customers using Linux on IBM hardware. Said Irving Wladawsky-Berger, Vice President of Technology and Strategy for IBM's enterprise systems unit, "We are definitely embracing Linux where it makes sense. We're working with the Linux community to make it a better operating system."

But while the Linux community at large seems to welcome the continued good news of more major hardware companies warming to the Linux platform, there continues to be some grumbling that the new ports to Linux are "hedge bets" in the event that Linux develops into the exclusive "operating system of the future", but do not constitute real commitments to further develop Linux or fully embrace the Open Source or free software movements.

Perhaps "embracing Linux where it makes sense" means something more like "jumping on the bandwagon before it reaches cruising speed".

Certainly, with IBM continuing to back its AIX operating system, the thought that Linux would become the operating system of choice among server/network hardware manufacturers is still some distance from reality. As Wladawsky-Berger, who was recently moved from IBM's Internet division to head up IBM's new Linux initiatives, said, "our AIX is very successful for the high-volume space, giant commerce servers and mining operations. We cannot look out ten years to see if Linux will develop into the dominant operating system for heavier operations, but we are positioning well if it does."

With the addition of IBM's network terminals, the Network Station Series 2200 and the 2800, IBM's "Linux-certified" computers include its ThinkPad notebooks, IntelliStation workstations and Netfinity PC servers. Additional information on IBM's Network Stations (in pdf format) is available, as well as information on Linux on IBM ThinkPads.

Most of IBM's workstations and servers have traditionally run on AIX or even NetBSD, as well as other versions of UNIX. IBM's recent Linux-friendly moves have been widely considered defensive maneuvers against rivals Sun Microsystems and its new Solaris 8, as well as Microsoft and its upcoming Windows 2000 (an updated version of Windows NT) operating system.

In this light, IBM's "embrace" of Linux seems as much a case of "Computer Maker, Heal Thyself" as it does a ringing endorsement of the open-source operating system. By most accounts, it has been the marketplace furor (particularly the stock market furor) that has captured the attention of corporate decisionmakers. While it is true that the legions of geeks buried in corporations like IBM have played a significant role in introducing Linux to their companies (often without the corporate decisionmakers' knowledge) and in getting Linux decisions implemented once the nod is given, it is equally true that companies such as Sun Microsystems, Oracle, Microsoft and IBM move more like schools of fish than lone sharks. And the move toward (and, occasionally, confusing combination of) Linux and open-source approaches is, like the widespread corporate herding around the Internet, a new path to the waterfall, so to speak, and nobody's secret any longer.

As Wladawsky-Berger notes, "For the Internet space, Linux is the direction of the market. We see Linux doing for applications what the Internet did for networking."

So, although everyone is jockeying for superior position, no one is turning the tables over because they have discovered Linux. What these companies "are" doing is using Linux to achieve ends already largely established. Sun Microsystems, which has invested in Linux companies including Caldera, and Sun's "Linux in the Limelight" page emphasize the threat Linux represents to "low-end users the proven reliability of UNIX", stating that "Sun views Linux as an alternative to NT". Oracle similarly beats the "alternative to NT" drum in praising Linux, but it is clear that Oracle sees Linux as a preferential platform for its database and application products most immediately. And Microsoft sees in Linux a smoking pea-shooter, more valuable for its ability to impersonate evidence as a full-fledged Microsoft-stopper than for its actual ability to put the beast down.

IBM has licensed software to the three leading Linux distributions, Caldera, Red Hat and Turbolinux.

One continuing sing-song heard from many companies who have become Linux-friendly in recent months, is Linux's relative difficulty in handling the "industrial-strength" business tasks routinely part of the work of larger Web sites. Some companies have used this as a reason to downgrade Linux's potential for growth in the Internet space. Others, however, point out the increasing use of Internet appliances, embedded or otherwise, with specialized task sets and (often) limited use which may be ideal for the Linux OS.


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