Jean Staten Healy: IBM's Worldwide Linux Strategy

In October of 2000, IBM CEO Louis Gerstner announced that the company would investing $1 billion in Linux development. This announcement came off the heels of two substantial developments in the industry. Google, unknown at the time, appeared with Linux servers in 1998, and Dell announced they would begin pre-installing Linux on select servers in 1999. A few years later in 2004, Big Blue made a formal declaration of sorts in a series of television commercials that culminated with a commercial that aired during Super Bowl XXXVIII, announcing their commitment to a partnership with the Linux community. While intended as a signal to their competitors and the market at large, the message had an unexpected effect on an unexpected audience. It was a celebration heard round the world. The underground community that was beginning to evolve around the Linux operating system had received a shot of notoriety in the arm. The global community of corporate giants had just validated the movement with this one very public endorsement. Then, just as quickly as it had happened, there was silence.

I shared this nostalgic moment with Jean Healy, Director of IBM Worldwide Linux Strategy during an interview I was granted while attending LinuxCon in Boston. Over the course of an hour, both Jean and Sean Tetpon (Global Communication Manager, IBM) discussed where IBM has been, and what they have been up to. As it turns out, they've been pretty busy.

On the global front, IBM has positioned themselves as one of the largest international tech companies to fund developments in emerging economies. In 2006, IBM announced their decision to devote an additional $6 billion dollars to their operations in India, on top of the nearly $3 billion they already invested in the years just prior to that. In 2008, IBM announced the establishment of its Banking Center of Excellence in Vietnam. The project laid the groundwork for financial institutions to develop a core banking service using open source technology.

Partnerships with both Red Hat and Novell, both of which have designed their own Linux platforms for IBM's server product line, have enabled IBM to lead an aggressive open source campaign resulting in large scale implementations for Bank of Russia, Boston University, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the University of Arkansas, Deutsche Rentenversicherung Baden-Wurttemberg, and a multitude of other venues.

I asked Jean how recent announcements from other technology giants like Google, who are mandating a migration from Microsoft, would affect IBM's decisions as to their technology choices in-house. Their strategy is reasonably simple. When you look at a company the size of IBM, you have to look at your technology needs from a common sense perspective. There are aspects of their operations that will benefit from migrating to open source. To demonstrate this, she outlined the operations of their call centers, which now largely operate on Linux. IBM recently announced that they would begin using the open source browser Firefox (Mozilla), as their default browser across the board. The development test cloud is entirely comprised of Linux. Still, it comes down to having the right tool for the right job. There are still areas of their business structure that benefit from the use of other operating systems.

When asked about the future of IBM, the message was very clear: mobile computing. With mobile devices now outselling personal computers, and the widespread emergence of Linux-powered devices, mobile computing has become a priority to IBM. Technological advancements are allowing corporate America to take their offices with them. Medical science has evolved from machines that would fill entire rooms in times past, to hand-held devices reminiscent of a “Star-Trek” like era. Breakthroughs in advanced warfare technology are placing command of the battlefields in the hands of the soldiers that occupy it.

It all comes down to availability, Jean explains. Emerging economies are experiencing exponential growth thanks in part to open source technology, which levels the playing field of high-tech expenses. Schools in remote countries benefit not only from the operating systems produced by open source companies, but also from the devices designed to run them and remain affordable. The high availability of open source technology to the remote parts of the world extends a technological olive branch. Linux can't bring rain to the desert, but it's providing a way to gain from the benefits of technological breakthroughs experienced in more developed parts of the world.

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