IBM pins hardware plans on Linux

By Reuters

January 10, 2000

NEW YORK--IBM today will announce new steps to make Linux a centerpiece of its computer hardware strategy, in what amounts to the biggest embrace of the alternative operating system by a major computer maker to date.

Sam Palmisano, head of the IBM server group, said in an interview on Friday that he was committed to making all of IBM's major computer product lines Linux-ready, combining fragmented efforts IBM had made in this direction last year.

To spearhead the company effort, IBM will unveil a new unit within its enterprise hardware business group led by Irving Wladawsky-Berger, the founder of IBM's Internet business unit and developer of the company's "e-business" strategy.

The new unit will have responsibility for all Unix and Linux software efforts, for advanced computer designs and for bringing together IBM's next-generation Internet strategy.

Palmisano, as the man in charge of the unit responsible for most of the computer hardware sales at the giant computer maker and heir apparent to IBM chief executive Lou Gerstner, set out the plans in a letter to IBM senior management Friday.

"We believe we're now on the brink of another important shift in the technology world," Palmisano wrote. "The next generation of e-business will see customers increasingly demand open standards for interoperability across disparate platforms," he said.

He was referring to the wide mixture of computer systems IBM builds to suit different customer requirements--from PCs to mainframe computers--and the capacity of Linux to act as a unifying force across these various computer systems.

"We will essentially Linux-enable all our platforms," Palmisano said in an interview about IBM's evolving strategy to make IBM servers fully ready to work with Linux.

Linux is a modern version of the Unix operating system, the software widely used to control the powerful computers that manage central business operations at many companies, but its suitability for running desktop computers remains in doubt. Still, Linux has won broader mainstream acceptance during the past year as an alternative to Microsoft's dominant Windows software, especially for running the latest Internet business tasks.

In the coming weeks, Palmisano said he also plans to set up a new dedicated sales force within the server group to unify and push forward the marketing of its Unix and Linux products. IBM also is donating key programming code developed for its mainstay computer systems to the open-source software development community in order to boost the reliability of Linux for running business computers, Wladawsky-Berger said in an interview on Friday.

Analysts believe IBM has done more than any other major computer maker to back Linux, whose growing popularity could undermine the proprietary Unix strategies of rivals like Sun Microsystems, the biggest Unix computer maker.

Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst with market research firm International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass., said IBM is at work on projects to Linux-enable its Netfinity PC servers and its mainframe-class computers, and to make its AIX version of Unix work more easily with Linux, among other systems.

"Among the major hardware vendors, IBM is the one that stands out the most in bringing Linux into its main business operations," Kusnetzky said. "The plan is to bring Linux and Unix under one roof now," he said of IBM's latest thrust.

This differs from other computer makers such as Compaq and Hewlett-Packard, whose support for Linux remains fragmented in various product lines, said Bill Claybrook, an analyst with Aberdeen Research of Boston, who also was briefed by IBM on its plans.

Palmisano said IBM's growing embrace of "open systems"--software whose features are designed by a growing body of independent programmers--is part of a multiyear undertaking to make IBM computers more adaptable to the changing industry.

In addition, the moves by IBM's computer hardware unit are part of a broader effort to stoke the lackluster growth of its vast computer hardware businesses, which account for as much as half of IBM's roughly $90 billion annual revenue.

IBM has been working on getting Linux to work on its mainframe S/390 computers, which are extremely fast, reliable and expensive. The most recent version of the heart, or "kernel," of Linux included software from IBM, said Alan Cox, a Red Hat employee and the second-in-command of the Linux project.

"Yes, you can now run Linux on an IBM S/390 mainframe," Cox wrote at his Web site, noting that the IBM effort overlapped work done by programmer Linas Vepstas. "Unfortunately, IBM secrecy caused a fair amount of duplicated work," Cox wrote.

CNET's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.

2000 Reuters