When computer giant IBM first began investing in Linux, the open-source operating system, reactions ranged from lukewarm to downright cynical.
“Why is a multinational giant – and the holder of more patents than any company in the world – muscling in on our territory?” asked some open source contributors, who were wary of such corporate involvement. Linux is, at least in theory, a collaborative effort, aimed at improving the same body of code. Initially, that primarily involved enthusiastic programmers working as volunteers in their spare time. It eschewed the very notion of intellectual property that was – and is – so important to IBM.
Some IBM investors were equally worried: “Where is the profit? Where is the differentiation?” they wondered.
They were concerned that IBM should not “give away” its labour and intellectual property to competitors – many of which were struggling.
Five years on, IBM has so far answered both sets of critics, emerging not only as the leading citizen of the open source world, but also managing to streamline much of its own software development.
The fact that IBM has borne the brunt of a legal challenge to Linux’s originality from SCO may have actually helped it with this objective: whatever IBM may lose in lawyer’s fees will be made more than compensated for by its growing acceptance among open source devotees.
Its decision to hand over its Cloudscape relational database, used for developing Java products, to the open source movement in August demonstrated how far it has come: The announcement received rapturous applause at the US LinuxWorld conference.
But business managers also noted with approval that IBM intends to distribute an extended version of the product, which it will charge for, and which will generate more business through offering support services. Linux has been the focal
point of IBM’s open source efforts. IBM has so far invested billions of dollars in developing and marketing the operating system and in porting its own applications over to the operating system. Some 650 IBM programmers now work full-time on Linux, a number which has doubled in two years. “All of our businesses have major Linux components,” says Carol Stafford, IBM’s worldwide vice president for Linux. “We use Linux as the basis of our products.”
This is not charity, of course, and IBM is being a little clever with the arithmetic. In adopting Linux, IBM has been able to bring together more than four different proprietary Unix teams, cutting costs and duplicated development work.
And IBM’s small army of “enthusiastic contributors” and “equal members of the open source community” are mostly focused on translating the needs of IBM customers’ needs into source code, rather than the open source community generally. Typically, they will work in areas such as device drivers, security and porting to IBM processors.
One example: IBM is trying to encourage users to run Linux on its own Power chips, rather than the more common combination of Linux on Intel’s x86 processors, and its code submissions reflect that. The platform, IBM reports, is gaining momentum now that mySQL has configured its popular open source database for the Power family.
But using the open source movement in this way is not without risk. In adopting this strategy, IBM has lost some control of its R&D. Its submissions to the Linux code base, like everyone else’s, are vetted by the independent Open Source Development Labs, which counts Linux’s inventor Linus Torvalds among its employees.
“IBM doesn’t own Linux, therefore we don’t control what gets put into it,” insists Stafford.
Observers also note that IBM is not so devoted to Linux that it is prepared to give away technology that gives it a market advantage. The advanced multithreading techniques demonstrated on its latest p5 processors, for example, are only available on IBM’s proprietary version of Unix, AIX. Stafford promises “you’ll see it over time in Linux” – presumably when it no longer gives IBM a commercial advantage.
So far, IBM has escaped serious censure for its two-pronged strategy. After all, most other IT companies do much the same – and some are much more opportunistic. Stafford criticises other vendors who merely “ride the wave” of open source by donating software simply because it no longer makes them money.
Ultimately, IBM thinks that Linux is good for customers. Stafford says she hopes that retailers and banks will standardise on Linux for their entire infrastructure. This will make integration easier and provide customers with an alternative to other, more prominent operating systems – such as Windows.
“We try to go into any market where we think customers might want to try something different,” says Stafford.
This is, of course, prime territory for challenging Microsoft’s dominance. Analysts at the Meta Group note that “price sensitivity in retail ranks among the highest of any industry” and financial institutions are commonly early adopters of newer technology.
Dale Vile, of UK analysts Quocirca, agrees: “Much of [Microsoft’s] leverage is dependent on its incumbency in the operating system layer, so attacking this using Linux is a way of undermining the entire Microsoft solution stack and value proposition.”