IBM Paints Linux Blue

Exclusive: A deal with Red Hat could alleviate support concerns.

By The Sm@rt Reseller Staff
Sm@rt Reseller

December 18, 1998

IBM could play a central role in the defining moment for Linux and freeware. Indeed, the main stumbling block to widespread corporate adoption of Linux-the lack of 24 x 7 service and support-could melt away, if IBM Corp. has its way.

For the past month, channel sources have expected IBM to announce a sweeping service and support agreement for Red Hat Software's Red Hat Linux. Red Hat officials would not comment on the rumor, but did say Red Hat is in the process of staffing up its own call center to handle service and support calls starting in January. IBM officials declined to comment, as well.

But what's really held IBM back from an official support alliance with Red Hat, say sources close to the company, are legal issues. If IBM supports Linux the way it supports other operating systems, it will need to tweak the operating system itself, and that could raise liability questions neither IBM nor its many partners want to deal with.

"The question is how to do it without exposing IBM and its partners," says one source familiar with IBM's plans. "With a general public license, there are some exposures with liability and how open are the patents if you modify the code. The best way to solve this is by cleaning up the license. IBM has been asked by the distributors (such as Red Hat) to support Linux. You can expect something to be in place by midyear."

The source noted that IBM does not view Linux support as a means of combating Windows NT. Instead, Big Blue sees the freeware as a growing opportunity in the education and government markets, as well as corporate departments-where it is used for Web serving, as well as file and print services.

IBM is no stranger to open source in general, and Linux, in particular. The company has discussed publicly its ports of DB2 Universal Database and MQSeries middleware to Linux. Also, commercially available versions of Linux run today on IBM RS/6000 systems.

Additionally, IBM's Netfinity group is quietly providing service and support for Linux on Netfinity servers on a case-by-case basis, company officials confirm. An IBM Netfinity spokesman says IBM currently is receiving 8 to 10 requests for Linux preloads per month.

"We don't quite have all the support pieces there, like drivers," says the IBM spokesman, "but our Business Partners are loading it. You can get [Linux] support from IBM, and resellers can sell you that support."

The spokesman confirms, however, that the primary forces holding back IBM from going whole-hog with Linux support are unanswered intellectual-property concerns. "What does the freeware model do, from an intellectual-property perspective? There's a group within the Netfinity team assessing market demand, potential business impacts and the like. So far, we haven't seen a tremendous amount of demand from our business partners and customers, but there is a lot of interest."

IBM's data-management group, likewise, is watching to see whether the Linux market will grow sufficiently to warrant consideration as another major OS platform from IBM. In December, IBM made available for download a beta version of DB2 for Linux. It is evaluating whether and when to port other data-management components-including Visual Warehouse, DB2 OLAP server and data-mining tools-to Linux, according to Jim Kelly, VP of data-management marketing with IBM Software Solutions.

Not all IBM divisions are equally jazzed about Linux, however. The AIX software group is taking care to distance itself from Linux. "The average AIX and Linux customers are very different," says a corporate spokesman for the AIX division. "Linux users want to do their own thing and have the time and technical knowledge to play with the code. AIX users want an OS that will be backwards-compatible and has overall business and technical reliability, plus full support throughout."

Reported by Mary Jo Foley., Ed Sperling. and Esther Schindler.

IBM's Linux Targets


Under Consideration:

Copyright 1998