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IBM looks beyond servers with Linux plans

Big Blue's strategy for using Linux can be summed up in two sentences: Today, the server. Tomorrow, the world.

IBM's strategy for using Linux can be summed up in two sentences: Today, the server. Tomorrow, the world.

It's been a year and a half since IBM welcomed Linux onto its computers and a few months since it announced Linux would spread across the entire server line. Now, IBM wants to have a place in the nascent movement to spread Linux to small electronic devices, the head of IBM's Linux efforts said.

"We have a whole suite of (software) that will run on tiny little things," said Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice president of technology and strategy at IBM. But while companies such as Lineo, I-Logix, LynuxWorks and MontaVista work on bringing the core of Linux to these gadgets, IBM will focus on higher-level software such as components for Sun Microsystems' Java, IBM's DB2 database software or IBM's Websphere e-commerce software.

IBM plans not to sell that software directly but rather to license it to other manufacturers, who will use it as part of their own products, Wladawsky-Berger said.

In the meantime, however, IBM shares the belief with Dell Computer, Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard and most Linux sellers that Linux is best for servers, the networked computers that run Web sites, send email and manage corporate inventory. IBM today announced one such deal, in which the Weather Channel's Weather.com site is replacing Sun servers with IBM Intel-based servers to send out Web pages.

Sun servers, however, will remain in use in the back end of the Weather.com site, where computing demands are higher, he said.

Wladawsky-Berger discussed these and other plans in an interview with CNET News.com.

CNET News.com: How much is the Weather.com deal worth?
Wladawsky-Berger: The value of the agreement is over $1 million. That's the total amount, including hardware, middleware (and services).

Is IBM interested in Linux for computing devices other than the server?
Absolutely. We will work with the community that's making Linux an embedded operating system for Internet appliances. We have a whole suite of middleware, such as DB2 Everywhere (database software) that will run on tiny little things.

The nice thing about Linux is that by having the operating system on an Internet appliance as in servers, it makes it very reasonable to take a lot of the technology for servers and desktops and move it to Internet appliances.

A while back we announced that our speech recognition technology will be available on Linux. We ported it, and now people can build Internet appliances that include it.

We would be CNET's Linux Centerhappy to open-source technology in our research labs...on what are some of the most important requirements in the future for an embedded operating system. Our Almaden lab is working on intelligent watches. The No. 1 problem is the damn battery. The watch is small, but you have to wear a backpack to carry the battery.

But the money right now is in Linux servers?
It's in the servers. We're making sure all our platforms support Linux, from (Intel-based) Netfinity to (mainframe) S/390. Linux compatibility with AIX (IBM's version of Unix) is coming out late this year. You can take a Linux application and recompile for AIX with just about no changes.

And Linux is now running on IBM's upcoming Power4 chip? Did Linuxcare help with the work? (The Power4, due in IBM servers in 2001, has two CPUs built into a single chip.)
We were able to do it quickly. One of the nice things about working with open systems is you can get help from many, many people. We work with Linuxcare and the major (Linux) distributors all the time.

What do you think of the fact that much Linux development is a collaborative effort including several companies?
It's huge! It's like the Internet. Once you're in the world of standards, you're no longer dependent on a vendor. Essentially, the world starts building a more standard infrastructure that anybody can tap into.

It revolutionizes the whole way software and applications will get supported. It's much easier to find people who can support Linux.

In the software industry, things were very balkanized. With Windows, Netware, OS/390 (and many other operating systems), you slice the skills fairly thinly, with people taking special courses in their particular dialect.

But it's easier if you need someone who speaks (an industry standard such as) HTML or TCP/IP. You go to any high school and you hire some good computer scientists.

What are the challenges Linux faces?
How fast it will scale up (so it works on powerful, expensive servers with many processors, which companies can't afford to have crash). In our case, we are mitigating that by supporting Linux application programming interfaces on AIX and supporting Linux on S/390 so people have alternative ways of scaling up Linux.

What do you say to Sun chief executive Scott McNealy's criticism that IBM is jumping to embrace the Linux fad the same way it jumped to embrace Windows NT in the 1990s?
We see Linux as being as much of a fad as the Internet was in 1995. Linux is more like the Internet in being an industrywide initiative that all vendors can support. That makes it very different from supporting Windows or other technology that's very good but that one vendor has all the control over.

With Linux, what makes it different is it's vendor-neutral. It's also a very, very elegant operating system. (Linux founder) Linus Torvalds and team are some of the top computer scientists in the world.

IBM has released its JFS journaling file system to the Linux community, one of several such offerings that could enable Linux computers to reboot faster. Is anything else coming?
We have a whole list of functions we're ready and willing to open-source. IBM and SGI are probably the two most aggressive existing vendors in open-sourcing their software.