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IBM says yes to Linux investment

IBM says yes to Linux investment

Has IBM recouped its heavy investment in Linux? The answer from Karen Smith, IBM’s vice-president for Linux strategy and market development, is an unqualified yes. And is IBM continuing to invest in Linux? Once again the answer is yes.

Has IBM recouped its heavy investment in Linux? The answer from Karen Smith, IBM’s vice-president for Linux strategy and market development, is an unqualified yes. And is IBM continuing to invest in Linux? Once again the answer is yes. Smith was speaking to me during IBM’s Developerworks Live! Conference in San Francisco, where Linux, Java, open standards and integration were the primary focus of speakers.

According to Smith, a majority of the revenue directly attributed to Linux comes from the sales of hardware, mainly servers, but also, somewhat surprisingly, IBM has seen growth in mainframe hardware as a result of customers running Linux on IBM mainframes.

But the revenue mix is changing, and IBM is starting to see more software and services revenue in the Linux area. This is a trend that Smith predicts will continue, particularly as IBM focuses on Linux-based platforms for the SME (small to medium-sized enterprise) sector, as the low cost of Linux-based solutions makes this an ideal platform for application developers in this sector.

IBM has introduced new products such as the e-Server integrated platform for e-business (a pre-packaged Linux-based server for developing e-business applications), and services such as the StartNow programme that focuses on attracting and supporting independent software vendors (ISVs) by offering marketing, sales and technical support.

IBM’s focus for now seems firmly fixed on Linux on the server as opposed to Linux on the desktop; the policy seems to be to wait until there’s momentum out there for deploying Linux on the desktop. I asked Smith when she thinks this might start to happen, and she guessed another 12 to 18 months. So if you are hoping for a Lotus Notes client for Linux soon, don’t hold your breath. A hint to IBM: perhaps what’s required to ramp up the momentum is the availability of popular user applications on Linux — like Notes and perhaps Lotus SmartSuite, for instance?

Along with the focus on Linux and Linux-based software was a very strong focus on Java server technology and specifically on Websphere — IBM’s J2EE application server. IBM launched version 5.0 of Websphere at Developerworks, and was strongly hyping J2EE technology and web services as the foundations of next-generation computing.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice-­president for technology and strategy at IBM, sees J2EE, web services and other emerging open standards as being the technology that will enable “grid computing” — utilising hardware and software resources across multiple platforms transparently to achieve massively high performance or to provide much greater applications flexibility.

Proponents of grid computing see information technology applications in the future being much like the electricity running on today’s electricity grids. From a user perspective you won’t necessarily know, or need to know, where the application is being run, where the data is stored or how the grid of resources hangs together. You will simply access the resources you need and glue them together to create the functionality you require.

For this grid computing to become a reality, says Wladawsky-Berger, a number of grand challenges need to be solved, including security (user identification and authorisation), and system reliability and redundancy. This is, he says, IBM’s big vision.

It’s nice to know that IBM has such a grand vision of the future, but the pragmatists among us are more disposed to ask what this is going to deliver right now — or at least in the short term anyway. IBM pointed to a couple of real-world grid examples as an indication that the technology is already making this possible. One of these is a grid application developed by a company called Butterfly.net for online gaming. This grid resides on clusters of IBM servers running Linux and IBM middleware and is capable of supporting up to a million simultaneous gamers from each hosting centre. Multiple hosting locations offer scalability and redundancy.

A number of examples of web services “portlets” were also being used in conjunction with IBM’s portal server. IBM sees its portal technology as a way of gluing web services applets together to create the front end to a number of different applications simultaneously. For instance, an employee’s personal portal page might include email, company announcements, calendaring and scheduling, online meeting rooms, competitive analysis and stock feed information all on the one page. Each of these pieces of information could be coming from a different source.

Lotus CEO Al Zollar outlined the future Lotus strategy for Domino, Quickplace, Learning Space and Quicktime. Dubbed Nextgen, the Lotus/IBM strategy is to “unbundle” the Lotus suite of products and provide web services access to the functionality that they provide. This, says Zollar, will not happen overnight, and Lotus will produce at least one more major release of Domino after the version 6.0 release due in Q3 this year. Asked about rumours that Lotus is to dump Domino’s .nsf file structure in favour of using IBM’s DB2 database, Zollar said that if DB2 becomes integrated into Domino it is likely that both formats will co-exist during the transition.

Overall, the mood of IBM at the conference was bullish. It was helped by an announcement from Gartner that IBM has taken the lead over Oracle in database revenue. The Gartner report includes revenue from all databases including desktop databases such as Microsoft Access. IBM’s market share jump was helped by its purchase of Informix, but even without the Informix figures included, IBM showed a gain in market share while Oracle showed a decline.

A Giga Information report also showed IBM gaining market share in the application server market, with its Websphere application server holding a 34% market share. According to the report, IBM is neck and neck with its main rival, BEA, which also holds a 34% share of the application server market.

IBM appears confident that its range of products will position it well to benefit from the next wave of internet-enabled development, and that its support of open source and open standards make it a comfortable choice for customers over proprietory technologies. Having seen the swing in support for Linux, and the sheer volume of open-source Java development, it seems to me that this confidence is reasonably well justified. IBM also has a huge advantage in the enterprise space — where I predict the next wave of expenditure in online application development is likely to spring from — because this enterprise space is IBM’s traditional stomping ground. I’ll await the developments with interest — my prediction is that IBM is well poised to benefit from the next upswing in IT spending.

Evans is online business manager at CIO’s publisher, IDG Communications, and likes to dabble in development. He attended Developerworks Live! in San Francisco courtesy of IBM.

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