February 16, 1999 5:20 PM PST

Big Blue gives green light to Linux

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IBM is in the midst of a company-wide adoption of Linux, lifting the Unix-like technology to the status of more traditional operating systems.

Responding to increasing customer demand by Fortune 500 companies and other business clientele, the computer colossus is advancing its global Linux strategy on several fronts. It is bringing the operating system onto two computer lines, adding Linux support to its services business, and porting its software to the relatively new operating system, industry sources said.

"It's very clear we need to do something that gives us a global offering for Linux," an IBM source said. "Part of what we're trying to do here is help Linux become business as usual for business."

IBM plans to announce details of its Linux strategy at the LinuxWorld conference beginning March 1.

Regarding hardware, IBM is working on bringing Linux to two separate server lines, its PowerPC-based RS/6000 and its Intel-based Netfinity lines, industry sources said. Although other developers have done most of the work of bringing Linux to the PowerPC and Intel systems, IBM will help Linux developers write the software needed to enable specific hardware to run, sources said.

IBM will offer Linux systems on low-end RS/6000 machines aimed at the academic market. For these machines, IBM will use the LinuxPPC version of Linux that works on the PowerPC chip.

And on its Netfinity servers, IBM will put support for Red Hat's distribution of Linux on par with more mainstream operating systems such as Microsoft's Windows NT or Santa Cruz Operation's UnixWare, an IBM source said. Although IBM leaves the job of installing the operating system to resellers or customers, it handles hardware and software technical support for the first 90 days, and Linux will be folded into this model.

In January, IBM said it was "aggressively" evaluating Linux and was pilot-testing Linux systems with clients. That strategy is moving ahead now with software and services being added to the mix.

IBM has released a beta version of its DB2 database software for Linux, will release a Linux version of its Lotus Domino and Notes collaboration software, and supports the Apache Web server, which is used on many Linux machines.

In addition, IBM will work with software companies to run their products on IBM Linux machines. Those systems will be demonstrated at business shows and will fit in with IBM's joint marketing programs. "Some of the big enterprise resource planning vendors are starting to make noises about Linux," the source said.

Another Red Hat win
This week, Red Hat is scheduled to announce the plan to have its Linux distribution certified on certain IBM Netfinity servers, sources said. IBM also plans to encompass the rest of the "big four" Linux distributors: Caldera Systems, which has a strong presence among server resellers; SuSE, a company that is strong in Europe; and Pacific Hi-Tech, which dominates in Japan and China.

IBM will begin its Linux Netfinity plans at the "sweet spot," relatively low-end servers with one or two processors. It's not yet clear when the machines will be available.

The Netfinity machines are targeted at medium-sized and large business customers who need machines to handle "Internet infrastructure" tasks such as Web service, email, protective firewalls, or FTP servers. In addition, IBM is evaluating scientific and technical computing as a potential future market for Intel-based Linux machines.

In contrast, IBM plans to get its RS/6000 Linux machines started in the academic market, an industry source said. RS/6000 machines currently use only AIX, IBM's version of the Unix operating system, but the new Linux machines will be positioned for the technical and academic market to avoid competing with the AIX machines, sources said.

"RS/6000 traditionally is not strong in the academic world," a source said.

The scientific and technical market is "a good, safe entree for IBM into the Linux server arena" for its RS/6000 line, said Jason Haas, marketing director at LinuxPPC Incorporated. "Higher education has been very accepting of Linux, especially on the PowerPC."

LinuxPPC sells a version of Linux for the PowerPC chip for $32, and Haas believes that getting IBM support on the PowerPC chip will bring "more credibility to the platform," Haas said.

Writing drivers for proprietary IBM hardware raises intellectual property issues, though. IBM will sidestep such issues by providing Linux developers with tips on the IBM hardware but leaving the actual programming work to the outside community.

"What we'll end up doing will be dropping nods and hints and winks, and they'll build this thing themselves," an IBM source said.

IBM also will begin a program to educate its reseller channel about Linux, the source said.

Although Linux may be obtained for free or for relatively low cost, advocates consider the operating system a good choice for other reasons, such as its reliability and the fact that it can be customized. Programmers are free to modify the Linux "source code"--the underlying blueprints of the operating system--to tailor Linux for specific tasks.

Several companies make money distributing Linux along with installation instructions, technical support, and extra Linux software. These companies are branching out to offer more expensive corporate technical support packages.

At the same time, third-party companies such as LinuxCare and Corporate Linux Consulting are cropping up, providing formal Linux services.

 

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