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IBM advances Linux for Power chips

Big Blue puts more muscle behind its effort to improve Linux for its Power family of processors, adding dozens of programmers to Big Blue's Linux Technology Center.

IBM has put more muscle behind its effort to improve Linux for its Power family of processors, adding dozens of programmers to Big Blue's Linux Technology Center with plans to hire more.

"We hadn't been doing enough to fully enable Linux" on Power processors, the chip line used in IBM's pSeries Unix servers and its iSeries of midrange servers, said Dan Frye, director of the Linux Technology Center. "Linux runs pretty well today on Power. We want to take it from pretty good to world class."

The number of programmers at IBM's Linux Technology Center rose from about 250 to more than 300 as a result of the shift, Frye said. The new programmers at the center had already been working on "Linux on Power" elsewhere in the company, but IBM also will hire more developers for the task, Frye said.

Programmers will work on a variety of tasks: speeding Linux on Power, fleshing out support for hardware such as storage systems, enabling the use of service processors that help manage a server, and boosting features for higher-end systems with many processors. "You will see over time that SMP (symmetrical multiprocessor) size on Power will be in advance of SMP size on Intel," Fry said.

The move, announced to employees last week, illustrates the still-increasing importance of the operating system to IBM. It also shows that the company can't rely as much on the broader open-source programming community to support its own chip line.

IBM's Power chips are vying against AMD's Opteron and Athlon64, Sun Microsystems' UltraSparc and Intel's Itanium for attention in the market for 64-bit processors, which can gracefully manage vast amounts of memory. The Power line recently has grown to include the PowerPC 970, used in Apple Computer's new Power Mac G5 and in IBM's Power blade servers, which are due to arrive in the second half of 2003.

"IBM as a company views Power4 as their strategic 64-bit processor. They see a real opportunity to make Power4 the preferred 64-bit platform for Linux compared to Itanium, or at least as a competitor on an equal footing," said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff.

Power4's sequel, Power5, is scheduled to debut in 2004, IBM has said. The company is working on Power6 as well, along with plans to incorporate some Power attributes into the processors that are used in the company's ultra-reliable mainframe servers.

While the 64-bit processor future is open, Linux today is chiefly used on 32-bit "x86" processors such as Intel's Xeon and Pentium or compatible models such as AMD's Athlon. These x86 chips have by far the largest amount of software from independent software vendors (ISVs) such as Oracle and Veritas.

To make Power a more compelling foundation for Linux, "IBM needs to encourage ISVs," said RedMonk analyst James Governor. Itanium has a better suite of Linux applications than Power, he said.

IBM is working on that. Its DB2 database software is available for Linux on Power, and Tuesday, IBM will begin shipping a version of its WebSphere e-business software for Linux on Power.

"It's improving. It's not yet sufficient," Frye said of the software ecosystem growing around Linux on Power. "You will see a number of things coming out over the next weeks and months to improve that."

IBM's pSeries line most often runs AIX, IBM's version of Unix. The head of IBM's software group, however, has said Linux is the "logical successor" to Unix.

IBM is aggressively backing Linux on all four of its server lines--its two Power-based systems, its Intel-based xSeries line and its zSeries mainframe line. The broad strategy contrasts with that of Sun and Hewlett-Packard, which support Linux only on their Intel servers.

But while many companies and volunteers help develop Linux on Intel processors, IBM has to do most of the heavy lifting on its own when it comes to its Power and mainframe lines. IBM hopes to change this situation.

Programming work on Linux for Power outside IBM is "not as large as we would like. One thing we will be doing is working to increase that so it's more of a community effort and there are more things going on," Frye said.

Outside help is a possibility, particularly if IBM takes actions such as giving away developer workstations or if Apple's new machines can be used to develop software, analysts said.

"Maybe if they've proved it's a very viable, broad-based 64-bit platform, they'll start getting some more community contributions. Clearly it's in IBM's interest to jump-start that effort," Haff said.