IBM and Linux: A Test of Metal

With all of the recent buzz about IBM (NYSE: IBM) and Linux, it might seem as if a new version of the legendary Thomas J. Watson-inspired Big Blue “rally song” had been released on MP3, with the words “Penguin” and “Internet” added throughout.

Yet, according to many industry analysts, there is a significant development behind the hype. In a bid to shore up its cut of the e-business enabler market, IBM has strengthened its investment in Linux by adding support for the upstart OS to its monster S/390 mainframe computers.

‘Ever Onward’

Big Blue joined several other tech titans who are moving Linux into the world of high-end computing and e-business by making middleware available that would allow portability and integration of applications and data on different systems. The company’s Global Services unit is being tapped to provide the necessary support.

“For IBM, this is a logical extension of the Linux strategy to extend the capability of running Linux across its complete hardware spectrum,” observed Boas Betzler, IBM technical leader for the S/390 group, in an exclusive E-Commerce Times interview.

According to company figures, there have been some 2,100 downloads of the Linux code since it became available in January.

E-Biz is All the E-Buzz

The synergy between powerful mainframe computers and the open-source model is precisely what e-commerce needs, according to IBM and some industry analysts. Betzler stated that Linux and the S/390 are “the perfect fit for the Internet,” and that “IBM sees that being open and giving the customers the ability to run Internet, Web, and e-business applications is a major strength of Linux.”

According to a company statement, IBM’s decision to provide support for Linux for S/390 is a key element of the company’s application sourcing strategy — a plan to allow users the freedom to choose operating systems, middleware and programming languages that are best suited to their crucial e-business applications.

“You have the opportunity to run multiple instances of an operating system or different operating systems on the S/390 hardware,” added Betzler, providing “tighter integration between the transaction subsystems and e-business and Internet applications running on Linux S/390.”

Linux has been steadily moving into the market for e-commerce solutions where, according to some experts, more and more businesses are recognizing the benefits of open-source over the proprietary model used by such operating systems as Windows.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice president of technology and strategy for IBM’s enterprise systems group, stated earlier this year that “Linux is moving into the computing mainstream at the same pace the Internet did a few years ago and will fuel the growth of e-business.”

Bringing the Vendors on BoardNews PhotoTurboLinux headquarters in San Francisco, California

Linux for S/390 will be offered by strategic partners SuSE and TurboLinux. Both companies have, like other Linux vendors, focused product development to foster business-level adoption since it does not appear that Linux will be a serious threat to Windows dominance on the desktop any time soon.

Lonn Johnston, TurboLinux vice president of corporate communications, told the E-Commerce Times that the latest IBM move benefits e-commerce professionals in some straightforward ways, including: “the ability to consolidate and/or reduce the number of physical servers within an organization’s infrastructure; the availability of thousands of open-source applications for mainframe deployment; and a single source for S/390 and Linux support services.”

SuSE and TurboLinux will be the first to offer S/390 for Linux, releasing versions later this year, but other vendors will likely be tapped for the project.

“Although IBM has chosen to work with SuSE, Red Hat, Inc. (Nasdaq: RHAT), TurboLinux and Caldera (Nasdaq: CALD) as our main distributors, the current state of affairs is that that SuSE and TurboLinux were in a position to announce their support,” said Betzler.

Giving Back

“This announcement certainly is an important step also because it contains a lot of contribution to the open-source community,” noted Betzler when asked about the significance of the latest move and its relationship with IBM’s overall Linux strategy.

“So, it’s another important step and you can see it in the same light or in the same series of donations that have been going on with projects like the Journaling File System, the Apache Project or the Java Compiler,” he said.

IBM unveiled a spate of Linux-related moves at February’s LinuxWorld Expo in New York City, including a new initiative to foster open-source development. The new program was designed to offer versions of its software at no cost to commercial developers to initiate what it hoped would become a new class of Linux applications specifically designed for smaller businesses.

Big Blue Penguin Momentum

Last month, IBM announced that it is pre-loading Netfinity Servers with Linux distributions from vendors Caldera, Red Hat and TurboLinux.

News PhotoBob Young, Red Hat Chairman and co-founderThe company began seriously merging Netfinity and Linux in 1999, administering its ServerProven Solutions program in order to test software compatibility with the servers for vendors that support the open-source Linux platform.

IBM made another headline-grabbing move on Linux in March, working with the University of New Mexico to create a Linux-based supercomputer to do more than just crunch research numbers.

The Road Ahead

When asked what will be next for IBM and Linux, Betzler observed that “there will definitely be a lot of technology that is being developed by IBM moved to the open-source community and into the Linux kernel, especially expertise in the area of the performance.”

He added that “there will also be advances with regard to features that make Linux enterprise-ready, which will make Linux ready to provide qualities of service required to run mission critical applications like improvements of the Journaling File System or the Logical Volume Manager.”

The Reincarnation of Old Iron

IBM, looking to revitalize its “big iron” in recent years, has been finding success through the evolution of the Internet and the proliferation of Web applications. The online jargon dictionary defines big iron, simply, as “large, expensive, ultra-fast computers.”

“I think the basic message with IBM’s latest announcement is that mainframes are holding a lot of the company data,” concluded Betzler. “They are not old iron. They are back, they are really angry and they are running Linux now.”

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