The products, which use the new Power5 processor, run the open-source software but not AIX or i5/OS, the IBM operating systems that more commonly run on the Power machines, according to sources familiar with the plan.
IBM is set to announce a new, inexpensive and Linux-only server line called OpenPower.
The move would shift Big Blue's Power chips beyond their high-end market to compete against lower-end Unix servers and x86 systems. The trick will be getting the Linux community fired up about it.
That's a change from Power servers in the past, which have been aimed chiefly at higher-end servers using Sun's UltraSparc or Intel's Itanium.
"Clearly IBM still has a vision that their Power architecture can become an industry standard and displace all those crummy x86s and Itaniums and Opterons," Insight64 analyst Nathan Brookwood said. "They clearly see that Linux is the vehicle that makes it easier for customers to move to the Power platform."
Big Blue has a long way to go to reach x86 popularity, however. According to market researcher IDC, 4.7 million x86 servers were shipped last year, vastly more than the 118,000 Power servers.
IBM has been working aggressively to promote its Power processor family. In January it said that it wanted Power servers to be the same cost as servers based on Intel processors. In May it began sharing Power details and design tools to help chipmakers make use of Power designs. And in August, IBM made it possible for programmers to use remote servers at the University of Portland for free to develop Linux software on Power.
Since 2000, IBM has been an enthusiastic advocate of Linux, which brings some unification to Big Blue's four server lines and builds ties with an influential group of software developers. The company is investing billions of dollars in its Linux business, employing more than 300 programmers to work on the operating system and defending Linux against a legal attack by the SCO Group.
But so far, Linux on Power remains a niche project with limited abilities and little appeal to those other than IBM's existing customers, said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff. An offering like the OpenPower line is important for IBM to lift Linux on Power into the mainstream.
"They have to get the Linux community excited about it," Haff said. "The broader ambition IBM has hinted at--that Linux on Power competes full-fledged with Linux on x86--really requires a much broader set of developers and partners."
The potential expense of Linux on Power could be an inhibitor for at least one possible customer.
"I personally would love to run Linux on the (PowerPC) 970s...but it's hard to justify the cost of a box," said Nathan Hruby, a system administrator at the University of Georgia who runs Linux, chiefly on x86 servers such as Hewlett-Packard's ProLiant DL380. "Equality in power, features and options with a similar (or better) price tag would probably make IBM Power5 machines look real good to us."
IBM declined to comment for this story.
View from the competition
Rival Sun has respect for the performance of Power chips, but unsurprisingly contends that IBM will have a tough time winning over the mainstream Linux crowd, which--with x86 servers--has grown accustomed to having a choice of computer suppliers.
"I think it's an interesting move on their part, but I think the market acceptance is going to be challenging," said John Fowler, executive vice president of Sun's Network Systems Group. "Part of what drives the Linux community is they have open hardware choices, not just the fact that the operating system is open."
With OpenPower servers an IBM exclusive, Fowler said, "you have clumps of proprietary hardware dropped in the middle of it."
That IBM exclusivity with Power isn't a certainty, though. Other companies, such as Momentum Computers, build components for computers using IBM's PowerPC 970 chip, and the PowerPC 970FX is used in Apple Computer's Xserve products.
Fowler also argued that although "Power has some exceptional performance characteristics," it will be difficult to convince large numbers of software companies to create, test, support and market a new version of their software.
But IDC analyst Jean Bozman said the barriers to moving applications from one version of Linux to another are lower than with other operating systems. "If you're one of the Wall Street guys (with custom software), it's something that in a Linux world can be moved around fairly easily," she said.
IBM uses two varieties of Power processors in its servers today: the PowerPC 970 in the thin JS20 blade server and the higher-end Power4 and Power5 for more powerful machines. Although OpenPower today uses Power5, it's possible the PowerPC 970 also could play a role.
"I would expect if Linux on Power starts to become mainstream in any way, that PowerPC is the obvious way to get the lowest cost per CPU," Haff said, though computer users would lose higher-end Power5 features such as the ability to let a single server run many independent operating systems.
The JS20 blade server so far is available only with Linux, but IBM plans to make AIX available for it later.
RedMonk analyst James Governor said that the OpenPower project should help IBM's Power propagation goals. "IBM needs to establish Power beyond its legacy installed base," Governor said. To that end, he said, OpenPower is a "good bold move."