Is IBM embracing Linux too tightly?

IBM Corp.'s strategy to beef up Linux for the enterprise has some observers questioning whether Big Blue might be heading for a collision with the open source community.

A pack of Big Blue executives descended on last week's IBM Solutions Technical Developer Conference to tout IBM's Linux strategy. Even the company's own flavor of Unix - AIX - was not sacred, as senior executives declared that Linux could replace it when the open source operating system further matures.

"We are happy and comfortable with the idea that Linux can become the successor not just for AIX but for all Unix operating systems," said Steve Mills, senior vice president of the IBM Software Group.

But the Linux community isn't necessarily interested in the operating system gaining high-end functionality, says Stacey Quandt, an analyst at Giga Information Group. "There is tension between IBM's goals and the origins of the Linux community, which is focused on the Internet and appliances," she says.

Quandt gave the example of IBM's high-profile backing of the Linux Standard Base (LSB), a programmatic interface that lets vendors and in-house developers avoid writing multiple versions of applications for various iterations of the Linux platform. "Red Hat doesn't want LSB to be successful - why would it want to make it easier for developers to write applications that can run across Red Hat, SuSE and TurboLinux? But it would be good for hardware suppliers such as IBM," she says.

Quandt's comments come after similar remarks made by an analyst earlier this year who said IBM is hijacking Linux for its own goals. Gartner analyst George Weiss told reporters, "IBM is steaming ahead with strong new revenue opportunities. It could appear that one vendor is seizing major opportunities and riding roughshod over the community." The comment was made after IBM said it would pump US$1 billion into Linux developments this year.

Quandt says IBM is keen to add high-end functionality into and on top of the Linux kernel so it can use it as a weapon against competitors. "IBM wants to drive Linux toward the high end and take out Sun Solaris, but the Linux community doesn't care about that," she says.

Comments that Mills made to reporters at the developers' conference appeared to confirm the notion. "No one makes money on Unix. The money-making opportunity is above the operating system. Linux is yet another opportunity," he said. Examples of applications and services that might be offered on top of Linux include middleware and technical support, he added.

Scott Handy, director of IBM's Linux solutions marketing, denies there is tension between the vendor and the Linux community, and says the vendor is committed to "making Linux better."

"We looked at AIX and Solaris and said, 'What makes a world-class Unix system and what should go into Linux?'" he says. High-end functions IBM is keen to add to Linux include improved documentation, printer support, internationalization and enterprise file systems.

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