Vendors Buying Into Linux

Online sidebar to: Open For Business -- Linux's steady march into new areas of corporate IT is making the operating system harder for hardware and software vendors to ignore.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

May 2, 2002

4 Min Read

Since its inception nine years ago, Linux has threatened to change the software industry's economics. Judging by a growing number of IT vendors' plans, those changes could be afoot. Vendors aren't necessarily excited by the prospect, but they're trying to capitalize on customers' demands that they make a freeware operating system integral to their product lines.

Pervasive use of a free operating system makes it harder for the old guard to differentiate itself on the basis of an expensive platform. Vendors make less profit on each machine they sell pre-loaded with Linux, because they can't pass along to customers markups on the cost of the operating system. Linux is freeware, and users won't pay for it. And as more people use Linux--whose code is maintained by a loosely knit community of volunteer developers--the more vendors must differentiate themselves on other software, such as middleware and tools.

Vendors don't see much choice. "Proprietary operating systems, as valuable as they seem today, will eventually be replaced by a more open fabric," says Rich DeMillo, VP and chief technology officer at HP. "Market-making products keep getting commoditized in the high-tech marketplace." That claim's been in the air a long time, but Linux's steady march into new areas of corporate IT makes it hard for vendors to ignore: Market researcher International Data Corp. predicts that Linux systems will account for 32% of the server market this year, versus 10% for Unix, which is losing share.

Shifting engineering costs from maintaining hefty operating system code bases to building new applications could ultimately spur innovation, some technologists say. The lost revenue from giving away an operating system wouldn't hurt as much if the costs were tossed out as well. "Our job is servicing customers, and I'd like to have my engineering cycles available to do that, not fixing bugs" in Unix, says Rob Gingell, chief technologist in Sun's software systems group.

Sun in February said it would expand its Linux-Intel line to include general-purpose servers priced competitively with Intel-based machines and that it would ship its own Linux distribution that bundles all the software that companies need to develop and deploy applications, including the Java 2 Enterprise Edition components, development and management tools, and its iPlanet application server. Two years ago, Sun acquired software company Grid Engine, whose technology has developed into an open-source project for building wide area, distributed networks. Grid Engine software runs on Linux and Solaris.

IBM ships Linux on its four server platforms: the mainframe, RISC-based pSeries systems and iSeries minicomputers, and Intel-based machines. IBM's life-sciences business and other units have had success with clustering Intel boxes for high-performance apps. IBM helped rework 2,800 apps from independent software vendors to run on Linux, and the company has ported to Linux its most important software products, including its DB2 Universal database, WebSphere application server, and Visual Studio Java development tools. "By making Linux a favored option in every case, applications will just run," says Stuart Feldman, IBM's VP for Internet technology. IBM's expenses rise "if everyone has to integrate everything four ways," he says.

Other Linux projects are in the works at IBM. Eclipse, an open-source Java-tools development effort, aims to standardize the tools market and get more developers writing for WebSphere. As an experiment in whether open-source methods can turn out commercially licensed products, the company has set up an internal development Web site used by hundreds of technicians, researchers, and product developers, IBM director Dan Frye says. IBM developers are building grid-computing software code that runs on Linux, loaded on an iSeries machine, Feldman says. The app is intended to control Blue Grid, an internal IBM grid project. Not coincidentally, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, the exec who built IBM's supercomputer business, E-business initiative, and Linux strategy, is in charge of grid computing, too.

Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard ships Linux on its Intel-based servers and workstations, supports it on proprietary PA-RISC processors, and says the operating system will become a more common component in its Utility Data Center product, a server-and-software setup that lets users quickly pull resources from a pool when they're needed to serve an application. Martin Fink, a general manager for Linux at HP, says Linux running on RISC servers makes it easier for users to port apps from Unix systems to Intel's platform.

HP's greatest advantage may come from its close work with Intel on the Itanium architecture. HP co-designed the architecture with Intel, and an HP researcher is the lead technician of a consortium--which also includes Intel and the CERN computing lab--whose aim is to port Linux to IA-64 chips. In March, HP and researchers at the University of Illinois and other labs formed the Gelato Foundation to port grid-computing software from Argonne National Labs' Globus Project to Itanium. Chief technology officer De Millo says there's a "tight coupling" between HP's Linux and Itanium efforts and says the company will use both technologies to improve computing-as-a-service offerings. For instance, HP is exploiting Itanium chips' ability to process cryptographic security codes at high speed and to protect certain instructions from unauthorized apps. The goal is to develop a "secure Linux" that the company plans to release in beta form by year's end.

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