IBM's secret summit
By Joe Barr
October 1, 1999
IBM has just concluded its first internal "Linux Summit." The two-day event was held at the J.J. Pickle Research Center of the University of Texas, which is located very near IBM's north Austin facilities. The summit was attended by approximately 250 IBMers from around the globe, but it was closed to outsiders.
The summit included talks and presentations by IBM Linux and Open Source Program Director Daniel Frye, his boss Robert LeBlanc, and others from around the company involved with Linux. Jon "Maddog" Hall of Linux International was scheduled to give a keynote address on the second day.
There was a Thinkpad "Installathon," talks on Linux and DB2, Linux performance challenges, Linux support, Linux and NetFinity, Websphere and Linux, Domino for Linux, Java for Linux, and the future and Linux. I'm detailing this to make sure you understand: Linux is a very big deal at IBM.
I had the opportunity to interview Robert LeBlanc of IBM during the summit, so I got a chance to learn just what a big deal it is:
LinuxWorld: You are IBM's "point man" for Linux. I assume that you put together this summit?
Robert LeBlanc: It's my team that put together this summit. I am vice president of software strategy in the software solutions division of IBM. I've got the responsibility for putting together the Linux strategy for the IBM company. So anything that has to do with Linux, I am responsible for coordinating across all of IBM's units: the hardware, software, services, and everything else.
The summit that we've got going on, (laughs) I don't really call it a "top secret" summit. What we've done, and this will be one of several summits that we will have over a year, and beyond, is to have brought together all the people within IBM that have responsibility for, or are working with Linux.
We have tried to gather up all of the understanding, all the experiences that we have, to make sure that we are sharing across the IBM company what we are doing, where we are going, and to make sure that we have one consistent strategy.
Because we have a very large company with very distinct business units -- hardware, software, and services -- we need to make sure that we are all following the same kind of strategy, that we are consistent in our approaches and that we are solving problems once instead of every team solving the same kind of problems.
The summit has over 260 people, from all over the world, we have people here from Japan, from Germany, from all over the US, from Canada, anywhere that we have development work or technical work going on in the IBM company, there are people here representing those groups.
We've got people that play full time now on the LSB. We are porting all of our key software products on top of Linux. We announced a strategy back in March, at the LinuxWorld Expo, that says we are going to support four key distributions. There will probably be more over time, but we decided to do Red Hat, Caldera, SuSE, and Turbo Linux.
LinuxWorld: Can I buy IBM equipment today, preinstalled with Linux?
Robert LeBlanc: We don't do the preinstall, we work with the distributors and channel partners who will take IBM hardware and load whatever distribution.
LinuxWorld: Do you have licenses with Microsoft that would raise your prices for the product if you preinstalled another product?
Robert LeBlanc: No.
LinuxWorld: Why are you reluctant to preinstall? Why are you not preinstalling?
Robert LeBlanc: Contract terms. We are just trying to make sure that there is no exposure to any of the IBM patents, or anything of that nature, more on the hardware side than anything else. Another thing is that with Linux you can have so many different packages, coming up with one standard that satisfies the whole market is very difficult.
The channels, and the partners that we have, understand the requirements of the customers, so we allow them to do the preloads.
LinuxWorld: Do you mind if I fire questions at you, or do you have ground that you want to cover?
Robert LeBlanc: Go ahead. The only message we want to get across is that we are very serious about Linux. We see Linux as being a very important platform in the industry. We certainly believe that we bring some level of credibility to Linux, especially in commercial accounts. We have ported key software to Linux. We support Linux on all of hardware. We just announced Thinkpad support for Linux, something that our customers have been yammering at us about for awhile. We've shown Linux running on RS/6000. We just announced that we are going to support Linux APIs and ABIs on top of our AIX operating system to allow people to move Linux applications over to AIX, and in the future, Monterey, which is the convergence of all the Unix [efforts at IBM].
The thing is that it has been a grass roots kind of activity. We have had people playing with Linux for a long time, for at least 18 months. We started seriously down this path about a year ago, and with Apache, even before that.
We started a serious effort around open source, Apache being the first one that we made an announcement about, and Linux being the natural next one down the path. We look at this as being not only Linux, but being open source. We are looking to make contributions to [the] community.
We look at it as part of our strategy of being heterogenous and supporting what customers want. We are seeing an increased interest in our customers around Linux. Especially as Linux adds more and more capability around SMP support. It is an important platform for us and it is an important platform for many of our customers.
We just want to make sure that people understand that we are in this for the long haul and that we are spending an awful lot of effort as referenced by 260 people here. If we had allowed [just] anyone to fly in, the costs would have been prohibitive. We would have literally thousands of our engineers in the room. Because, like most other businesses, our technical community is very high on Linux.
LinuxWorld: Is there any plan to port Lotus SmartSuite to Linux?
Robert LeBlanc: It is something we are looking at, but we have not made a decision yet on that one.
LinuxWorld: Will we be able to purchase IBM equipment with Linux on it?
Robert LeBlanc: Well, it is a question of when, not if. We are definitely planning on doing that. That will be across the whole NetFinity, Thinkpad product line.
LinuxWorld: Will IBM make available drivers for modems, Microchannel, and any PC hardware the company manufactures?
Robert LeBlanc: The answer is clearly yes. In fact, we had a discussion this morning with some of the engineers about that. We will make some of that available into the open source community. Things like Server Raid, we've already made available.
What we try to do with the open source community, we don't want to just back up a dump truck and dump out all this code. We try to make sure we give back code that is actually going to be valuable, that people will actually want to work on.
LinuxWorld: I think the feedback on IBM's participation with the Apache Group has been very positive, because the Apache people said "Look, this is good stuff."
Robert LeBlanc: One of guidelines that we put in place internally is that anyone who wants to contribute to Linux, or to open source, they not only have to contribute the code, but we also contribute the individual. And so it's not a case of just dumping the code and walking away, we want the individual to be committed as well. That's why we've got a substantial number of people, and more in the future, that will play in this space.
LinuxWorld: The announcement, or the preannouncement, or the mistaken announcement by IBM and Red Hat about certification of the Thinkpad didn't include the fact that the Thinkpad comes with a Winmodem that can't run on Linux. What's up with that?
Robert LeBlanc: We'll fix it. It's a matter of getting the right drivers on Linux. It was an oversight on our part, it was just something that slipped through the cracks.
LinuxWorld: It is so cool to have Linux on a laptop. I saw Miguel de Icaza, the guy who heads up the GNOME project, with Linux on a laptop at the open source Forum here in Austin. You see people running Linux on laptops at more and more shows, and it is way cool to see that.
Robert LeBlanc: Yeah, and you are going to see more and more of it. The laptop is the tool of choice for almost everybody now. It's not just productivity users any more. It is developers, our own developers inside the IBM company, most of them have laptops because they want to be able to work wherever and whenever they want. I see that as a continuing trend and we are working hard to get full support there.
LinuxWorld: Is Linux being positioned by IBM as a replacement for OS/2?
Robert LeBlanc: OS/2 and Linux are two very different things. They are both operating systems, but they are targeted at different audiences. We don't look at Linux as a replacement for OS/2. For a certain set of customers, it could be a replacement. NT could be a replacement. People will continue with OS/2, and we are continuing to invest in OS/2 in certain markets.
It is a customer choice. Our strategy is very much one of heterogeneity, so we support OS/2, we support Linux, we support NT, and we will continue down that path. So there are no plans to say, "OK, instead of OS/2 we'll use Linux."
LinuxWorld: Will we see Linux on a 390?
Robert LeBlanc: There are always discussions going on, and it is with the realm of technical feasibility. Is it something customers are asking for? Is there a big market out there? It's certainly not there today, but who knows about the future. If the market wants it, then we will go spend some time and energy on it.
LinuxWorld: Is there a role for Linux in IBM's ecommerce push?
Robert LeBlanc: Absolutely. We've put Linux up at the same level, we consider Linux to be a Tier 1 platform, so we are moving all of our ebusiness software on top of Linux. DB2 is now generally available on Linux, it's been available for about the last 30 days. MQ is available today on Linux, generally available.
LinuxWorld: MQ is ... ?
Robert LeBlanc: Message queueing, which is an area where we are kind of the market leader. Domino is now in beta on Linux. And we've had over 40,000 downloads in just over a month and a half. We've got Websphere available. We are moving all of our key ebusiness software over to Linux.
LinuxWorld: You've used the term Tier 1 a couple of times in regards to Linux. Can you tell me what that means?
Robert LeBlanc: Tier 1 means we consider it one of the primary operating systems. Because we are on a heterogeneous strategy, the Tier 1 systems would be things like AIX, Sun Solaris, OS/400, HP UX, OS/2, of course 390, NT, and now Linux. So Linux and NT, for example, are at the same level.
The secondary tier would be operating systems like some Siemens or Dec Unix, or other players. What Tier 1 means is that we port all of our key ebusiness software and it becomes part of our portfolio. We will make sure that it runs on our hardware, and we will also make sure that we have services to support it.
LinuxWorld: What do you see as IBM's major opportunity around Linux? Is it in service? Is it in add-ons? Is it in offering it preloaded? Is it in making all of your products Linux friendly?
Robert LeBlanc: Well, I think it's all of the above. Support is certainly a key. A lot of customers have come to IBM [for] support [for] Linux. We've announced a set of offerings to support customers 24/7. We do that across four distributions, which customers particularly like.
We're porting all of [our] software to Linux, so it becomes part of our ebusiness offering. The opportunity there is to help customers build their ebusiness solutions and allow them to choose the operating system that best meets the needs of their business -- whether it be Linux, or NT, or AIX, or whatever.
LinuxWorld: Are you looking at Linux, like Linus is, as someday being an embedded OS? Is IBM actively doing anything to bring Linux down to the size necessary for an embedded OS?
Robert LeBlanc: Do we think Linux can be brought down to that size? I think the answer is yes, there is certainly enough instance proof out in the industry, and certainly some of the work that we've done in this space, we can see Linux playing in embedded or specialized servers, or appliances, or thin servers, or whatever you want to call them. Do we think Linux can play a role there? I think the answer is yes.
Because of the way Linux is structured, with a very small kernel, and the add-on packages, you could build a custom OS to support that space. Clearly, we see there is a lot of opportunity there. A lot of the analysts in the industry that we talk to see an opportunity there. Obviously, we are looking at that opportunity. We haven't made any announcements or decided one way or the other, but it is clearly something that is on our radar screen and that we are seriously taking a look at.
LinuxWorld: Do you think that at some point in the future, in addition to supporting the four distributions you mentioned earlier, that there will be an IBM distribution?
Robert LeBlanc: We've debated and had a lot of discussions about whether there would be any value to having an IBM distribution. Again, we are talking about value to customers of use having a distribution versus us supporting multiple distributions.
At this point in time we do not have an intent of having an IBM distribution. We don't think there is a need for that. There are multiple distributions that solve customer problems. We are more worried about making sure that the Linux community doesn't diverge. We've been through this before; it was called Unix and we had multiple Unix and every vendor had their own Unix distribution and bingo, we had a divergence in Unix.
Our interest in LSB is to keep this thing together, let's keep it as a standard kind of activity. We think we can help the community by supporting multiple distributions and giving customers choices, and that will, we think, keep some control over the divergence that otherwise could happen. We are not looking to compete with Linux with our own IBM Linux. We don't see the value we can provide the customers over what is being provided today.
LinuxWorld: How long have you been responsible for IBM's Linux strategy?
Robert LeBlanc: I've been in this role for well over a year.
LinuxWorld: Have you been amazed as you've watched Linux during that time?
Robert LeBlanc: Yeah, it is moving at a breakneck pace. If you looked at Linux a year ago, there were several dozen people within IBM that thought Linux had a lot of potential. I was looking at it certainly from an executive perspective and said, "Yeah, it's interesting. It's something we've got to watch." Today it is a groundswell. It's a phenomena that is pretty interesting.
It is something that all levels of IBM executives have looked at. I personally have had discussions with Lou Gerstner on Linux, so Lou understands what it can and cannot do, and kind of the role we see it playing today and the role it could play in the industry in the future. So it is moving at a pretty fast pace, and you're seeing some pretty interesting market valuations for customers that are playing in this space. The tell-tale will be does it continue to add value to customers, and are customers going to start to deploy in great numbers.
Because up to this point in time it has been very much brought in by the technical community, by the Linux community, and it has been grassroots. At some point in time I think it will cross over to become more mainstream.
There are still some things that the Linux community at large, including vendors like IBM, need to address to make Linux viable in a lot of customer situations that aren't there today.
So, yeah, I've seen an awful lot of change. We've put together a strategy, we think it's the right one. We review it constantly because the market is changing constantly.
Every couple of months we do a full review, we look at all the data we have. We look at opportunity data, we look at market data, we talk to our customers to see where are customers are, and that's across the whole business. We've got an internal steering committee and we look at the Linux market on a monthly basis to see what's going on, what our customers are doing, what are customers are asking for.
So we are watching it very carefully, and yeah, it is moving at a very, very quick pace. People have to realize that Linux is still very much in its early adopter phase, very much in its infancy. It is growing up fast, but it is still a teenager. Things can change dramatically in this industry.
We think we have some value add that we can give back to the Linux community and help Linux and we will continue to do that. Our strategy is hetergenerity and we want our customers to go wherever they want to go.
Some people say IBM is pushing Linux because it is Linux versus NT, and that's not the case. We're the largest NT vendor and today we do over 600 million dollars of software revenue and it's a very important platform for us. It's really trying to support customers.
That's why we are maniacally focused on what our customers want to do, and how they want to do, and how can we help them do it.
LinuxWorld: Do you run Linux personally?
Robert LeBlanc: Yeah, I've got a machine at home and I run Linux on it.
LinuxWorld: Do you run Red Hat?
Robert LeBlanc: Right now I'm running Red Hat.
LinuxWorld: Do you run GNOME, or KDE, or do you have a preference?
Robert LeBlanc: No, no preference. I've got them both installed and I play around with it. It's just for my own personal edification and to keep on top of how the technology is evolving and moving.
LinuxWorld: What concerns do you have about Linux moving to the next level? Can you identify areas where there are problems, where things need to improve, where you are concerned about high risk?
Robert LeBlanc: I think most of the problems that Linux has are pretty well known. Linux's capability to scale beyond 4 way SMP to 8 and 16 way, we know that the Linux community is working on those sets of problems, so the ability to scale is certainly a concern.
The whole area of systems management and administration is still very much a technical environment where you have to be a fairly knowledgeable, technical user to be able to administer, install, and manage a Linux environment. Clearly, that has to be worked on. There will be some capabilities and tools and everything else that will make that a lot easier. That will be especially important if it ever gets to the desktop or becomes more mainstream.
LinuxWorld: As an IBM executive, one of the top executives in one of the top corporations in the world, what's it like rubbing shoulders with Linux people who are probably not from the same mold? Like Jon "Maddog" Hall, for example.
Robert LeBlanc: You know, at the end of the day, it's not all that different. We are all trying to achieve the same goal, to take the state of the art of computer science and take it to the next level. And to solve tough problems, to solve problems that customers are struggling with.
If you think back on open source, it was always about solving problems that are real and not pushing in a certain direction. From that perspective, some of my developers at IBM are no different than some of the developers that are out in the open source community. They are all technically very, very smart. All wanting to solve very tough technical problems.
It's been very interesting, and we've learned a lot. We've learned a lot certainly from the open source community and how they operate. How they control and manage themselves and everything else. So we've seen it as a learning experience for IBM, as well as them learning a lot from us, we've learned a lot from them. So it's been good all the way around. It's been interesting and it's been fun.