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Open source @ IBM: Savio Rodrigues speaks

In this fifth installment of the Open Source @ Series, I talk with fellow blogger, Savio Rodrigues, about the state of open source at IBM. In his words, "alive and well."

Ask a simple question, get a simple, but subtle answer. I asked Savio Rodrigues, who replaced me on the Open Sources blog but originally blogged here, to comment on the state of open source at IBM. He gave me a bit more than that.

You know, IBM, the company that essentially carried open source into the enterprise on its back in 2000 when it pledged $1 billion to fund Linux. Lately, though, IBM's has been less flashy with its commitment to open source though, as Savio points out, no less involved. As Savio reports, however, IBM's commitment to open source is broader than source code. Open source without open standards isn't of much interest to Big Blue.

In this fifth installment of the Open Source @ Series on The Open Road, Savio gives us much to think about in terms of the power of open source...and what it means in the absence of standards.

Savio writes...

Matt Asay asked the question: What is the State of Open Source at IBM?

Our answer? Excellent!

But, we would suggest that the question is incomplete. The question should be "What is the State of Open Standards and Open Source at IBM?", to which the answer is again: Excellent!

Open source and open standards are different, but they are linked. Open standards provide customers with significantly improved choice, portability, interoperability and guard against vendor lock-in. Open source by itself can make similar claims, but is there customer value in having the source code to a product that is based on a proprietary, "closed standard"? Some will say, "Of course there is, you have the source code, so you can do what you like." This is true in some situations. However, in other situations, having the source code to, for instance, an open source application server does not magically guarantee application portability or interoperability. Open standards do.

The software industry is in the midst of a shift from proprietary standards to open standards. We feel that this is an important shift that benefits our customers and the industry greatly. IBM provides leadership to, and participates in, a broad range of standards committees including W3C, WS-I, OASIS, OAGI, AIAG, Health Level 7 and IMS Global Learning Consortium to name but a few.

Before we address the state of open source at IBM, let's discuss the history of Linux at IBM. In the early days of Linux at IBM, Linux was as much an unknown to customers as it was to the majority of internal IBM teams. As a result, a senior executive responsible for Linux at IBM was involved in virtually all Linux-related decisions at IBM. As our experience with Linux has matured, responsibility for Linux-related decisions has been distributed across virtually every line of business at IBM.

We've replicated the above model around the broader topic of open source at IBM. Unlike other IT vendors, we don't have an "open source czar." Clients don't call up their IT vendor, such as IBM, to implement open source solutions. They call IBM for solutions, which may or may not include open source. At IBM, business unit executives oversee the delivery of products and services to clients. The fact that some of these products and services leverage open source products is secondary to driving client success.

A client focus has resulted in nearly every part of our business leveraging open source in some shape or form. At times one division may align with an open source product that competes with one of our traditional software products. This can cause a little internal friction. But we don't let the friction get in the way of ensuring our client's success with IBM.

Some examples of open source work at IBM (definitely not an exhaustive list as we'd be here for weeks!):

Back to the original (modified) question, "What is the State of Open Standards and Open Source at IBM?" The answer is "Excellent!" We're leaders in the drive towards open industry standards that improve customer choice, flexibility and reduce the possibility of vendor lock-in. Additionally, open source strategies have been integrated across virtually every line of business at IBM, and are used to further client success, not an agenda.

One thing that you may not have noticed, but which stood out prominently to me, is the internal shift at IBM. IBM used to have a designated open source lead. As Savio points out, many vendors do, but this is indicative of open source being new to the organization or somehow foreign. Over time, open source program offices tend to fade away as open source becomes a natural part of a software company's business. I saw this happen at Novell and expect to see it at most software vendors.

For IBM, it happened years ago, because IBM has long ago adopted open source as a central element to how it develops and deploys software. Given the company's long history (and the bureaucracy to go with it, no doubt), it is almost shocking how progressive it has been with open source. I credit Dan Frye, Scott Handy, and others with driving the early vision of open source and Linux at IBM, but it's clear that there's now a small army of advocates within the company ready to perpetuate that early vision, including Savio.

Savio, for his part, reflects the best of IBM: optimistic about open source's opportunities while pragmatic about how to use it. You won't find many zealots at IBM, though you do find plenty of believers in the power of open source.