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Computing heavyweights warm to Linux

The rival OS takes another step toward corporate credibility with the backing of Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics, Dell, Compaq and others.

Linux is taking another step toward corporate credibility as big-name computer companies like Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, IBM, and Silicon Graphics scramble to respond to swelling customer demand and add support for Linux.

Among information that emerged today: Hewlett-Packard said that a model of its NetServer line, traditionally Windows NT machines, will come with a version of Linux and announced a support deal with Linux distributor Red Hat that will make it easier for corporate customers to adopt Linux on Intel-based servers. Compaq Computer has qualified Linux on the new DS20 Alpha-based servers coming next week and plans to qualify Intel-based systems in the future.

IBM is in discussions with Red Hat and said it's "aggressively" evaluating Linux servers. And details emerged about Silicon Graphics' efforts to get Linux to work on its workstations.

The rapid ascendance of Linux clearly was a surprise to computer heavyweights, and the companies have been scrambling to figure out how to fit the operating system into their product lines.

"Linux is quite a phenomenon. It's taken us somewhat by surprise that it has grown so substantially in such a short period of time," said Brian Sanders, brand manager for IBM's Netfinity line of Intel-based servers.

Currently, Dell Computer charges $249 for Linux or other custom installations, said spokesman David Brandt.

Gateway, though, doesn't have Linux "on its road map," said a Gateway spokesperson. "If there's big demand, that's usually the point where we would start carrying something. That's not there at present," said the spokesperson.

HP announced today that it will market its rack-mountable NetServer LPr server as a vehicle for Red Hat's version of the Linux OS. Under the deal, HP resellers will install Linux or, for a $350 fee, customers can get HP to custom-install the Unix-like operating system, said HP's Aurora Belarmino. In addition, Red Hat and HP will cooperate in technical support so customers don't have to worry about which company to call when something goes wrong, said Paul McNamara of Red Hat.

HP will add the Linux options to its other Intel-based servers by this summer, Belarmino said, probably beginning with the lower-end models and working their way up. The LPr system will be available beginning February 2.

In addition, HP will create a version of Linux for "Merced," the upcoming 64-bit chips being co-designed by Intel and HP, Belarmino said. Linux will work when the new systems come out in mid-2000.

Compaq making servers Linux-ready
Compaq doesn't want to lose Linux customers to other companies, said Tim Yeaton, vice president of Compaq's Unix software division. Compaq has verified that "known" distributions of Linux work on its new Alpha 21264-based DS20 servers, which the company will announce next week, Yeaton said.

"Compaq intends to make sure its server platforms are Linux-ready," Yeaton said. The effort starts with machines using the Alpha chip, but will extend to Intel-based systems as well. Qualifying systems for Linux requires that Compaq continue to make hardware specifications available to the public so drivers can be written by the open source programming community.

Contrary to some published reports, though, Compaq "has no plans to bundle Linux per se," Yeaton said.

Nonetheless, that could change. Compaq is evaluating whether to add Linux to the range of options the company will pre-load on customized systems, Yeaton said. "We're driven by customer demand, and we intend to be fleet of foot and nimble," he said.

And IBM, which has ported a beta version of its DB2 database software to Linux, is "aggressively" evaluating Linux, said Mike Liebow, director of strategy for IBM's Netfinity line. IBM is in discussions with Red Hat, he said.

Customer demand "mushrooming"
Customer interest in Linux has been "mushrooming" since June, Liebow said, and IBM is "pilot testing" Linux systems with several customers. However, he added, IBM hasn't announced any products and won't unless they've ironed out whatever problems may arrive.

HP also has been moving fast to incorporate Linux. In October, HP said it looked like Linux could be useful for Internet applications. But on January 12, when CNET News.com asked if HP was planning to roll out Linux servers, spokeswoman Laura Lowell said HP was evaluating Linux but had "no plans to support Linux" on its Intel servers.

The deal with Red Hat has been in the works for several months, Belarmino said.

Red Hat isn't the only company to distribute and support Linux, but it's a forerunner, particularly with the investment by Intel.

Unix companies also warm to Linux
Meanwhile, Silicon Graphics seems to be comfortable clad in Linux, both for its traditional MIPS-based workstations and its new Intel-based Visual Workstations.

The company is working on a project called Hard Hat to create a "first-class citizen among Linux ports," aiming to have Red Hat Linux run side-by-side with SGI's own Irix version of the Unix operating system on its workstations.

SGI spokeswoman Brenda Hansen declined to comment on the company's Linux plans, saying that details on Linux and other parts of SGI's strategy will be announced after the company's analyst meeting tomorrow. However, much of the SGI/Linux effort is outlined on a Web site at SGI.

"We would like to make SGI/Linux especially easy to install and run side-by-side with SGI/Irix, maybe even hot switching between the two without requiring a full reboot," the SGI site says. "Another effort worth focusing on is leveraging the big number of existing Irix applications by building good Irix emulation into Linux. This will enable SGI customers to run their existing Irix apps on SGI/Linux."

The new version of the Linux kernel, released Monday, adds support for Silicon Graphics' new Intel-based Visual Workstations--support based on a patch written by an SGI employee. SGI even provides instructions on how to run Linux on their machines. The new kernel also lets Linux better able to take advantage of high-powered server features such as multiple processors.

Sun Microsystems, a Unix-only company, got on the Linux bandwagon earlier. It announced plans in December to cooperate with efforts to bring Linux to its based on the company's UltraSparc chips.