Big Blue is Back

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When you think of enterprise open source today, you tend not to think of IBM. That's both ironic and slightly unfair, since Big Blue probably did more than any other company to take open source into the business mainstream.

IBM's first major free software move was almost exactly ten years ago, in June 1998, when it announced that it was dropping its own Web server, which had an almost vanishingly-small market share, and adopting Apache. The idea of Big Blue, the archetypal staid, safe and very buttoned-down enterprise computer company, depending on some code written by a loose federation of hackers was pretty shocking at the time, and did much to alert the corporate world to the then-new world of free software.

Even more dramatic was IBM's announcement in January 2000 that it intended “to make all of its server platforms Linux-friendly, including S/390, AS/400, RS/6000 and Netfinity servers, and the work is already underway.” The fact that it was prepared to put its name behind something hitherto viewed as distinctly offbeat and marginal, planted a seed in the minds of many business people that perhaps open source in general, and GNU/Linux in particular, were now viable solutions for them too.

Against that pioneering background, IBM has been surprisingly quiet on the free software front in the last few years. That's not to say it hasn't been quietly beavering away, but it's all been pretty low-profile stuff. In contrast to this self-effacement, yesterday's announcement at LinuxWorld was far more forthright, notably about the company's uniquely sustained support for open source:

As the company marks ten years of support for Linux, IBM announced a number of cross-company initiatives to drive the next generation of Linux. Attributes of next-generation Linux include its role in green IT; use of Linux in business-critical workloads; use of Linux by midmarket customers; use of Linux on the desktop client of the future; and using the innovation-through-collaboration approach of the Linux community to bring technology advances to customers.

The importance of the move was underlined by the fact that it was spread across the nearly the whole gamut of computing:

The announcements include the first contribution of open-source software for supercomputers based on Linux; a new ISV software appliance toolkit that will expand the reach of Linux into the midmarket; pre-loading of Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 in Lotus Foundations, a hardware and software bundle geared for businesses from five employees on up; an expansion of its real-time Linux initiative; the introduction of a new version of z/VM with a dynamic memory upgrade feature available for Linux users; a planned initiative with Canonical/Ubuntu, Novell and Red Hat around Lotus Notes and Lotus Symphony; and more.

Supercomputing is an area already dominated by GNU/Linux systems – and by IBM, which has an 209 systems on the current TOP500 list. Its contribution of code for this sector is therefore welcome but hardly revolutionary.

More intriguing is its stated aim “to deliver Microsoft-free personal computing choices with Lotus Notes and Lotus Symphony in the one billion-unit desktop market worldwide by 2009.” There are two notable aspects to this. One, of course, is the fact that IBM is throwing its hat into the GNU/Linux desktop ring – and, by doing so, helping once more to shine the spotlight on a sector that has hitherto been regarded with considerable scepticism by enterprises.

Also striking is the way IBM is phrasing this move, in terms of “Microsoft-free personal computing choices.” I can't help feeling that we are getting to the point of kicking a person when they are down. It's as if Microsoft is now so wounded on the desktop through the Vista fiasco that the vultures are beginning to circle – even the big blue ones. As the press release puts it:

"The slow adoption of Vista among businesses and budget-conscious CIOs, coupled with the proven success of a new type of Microsoft-free PC in every region, provides an extraordinary window of opportunity for Linux," said Kevin Cavanaugh, vice president for IBM Lotus Software. "We'll work to unlock the desktop to save our customers money and give freedom of choice by offering this industry-leading solution."

The “Microsoft-free” bundle is based around IBM's Open Collaboration Client Solution (OCCS) including Lotus Notes, Lotus Symphony and Lotus Sametime – not the most exciting bunch of apps, but probably popular with the mainstream business market that IBM is aiming for.

More interesting are the open source partners that IBM is working with: “leading Linux distributors Canonical/Ubuntu, Novell and Red Hat”. So here we have Canonical/Ubuntu elevated to the same level as Red Hat and Novell for the business market – not just for end-user desktops, its traditional stronghold. Its appearance in this announcement is yet another milestone as the company moves discreetly upmarket with its offerings. Amongst the plethora of moves announced yesterday by IBM, maybe it is this one that will prove the most portentous in the long term.

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