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IBM looks to Japan for Linux progress

Big Blue is participating in two Japanese initiatives to improve Linux, projects that illustrate the peculiar nature of the development of the operating system.

IBM is participating in two Japanese initiatives to improve Linux, projects that illustrate the peculiar nature of the development of the operating system.

The first is a joint project among Big Blue and Japanese server leaders NEC, Fujitsu and Hitachi to improve Linux for big businesses. The second project, separate but with similar goals, is a new Japanese branch of the Open-Source Development Lab (OSDL), where programmers can test their software on expensive high-end systems.

IBM, NEC, Intel, SGI, Dell Computer and Hewlett-Packard joined Linux companies to start the original OSDL in Beaverton, Ore., last August. Backers of the new OSDL branch in Tokyo include Hitachi, Fujitsu, NEC, Mitsubishi Electric, Miracle Linux and others.

Under the licensing terms of Linux, it's very easy to share improvements to the Unix-like operating system but legally impossible to make it into a proprietary product such as the competing Microsoft Windows. This arrangement has underlain the growing cooperative effort among numerous companies to collectively improve Linux.

Linux began as a hobbyist effort by Linus Torvalds and other volunteer programmers. Now Dan Frye, director of IBM's Linux Technology Center, believes most Linux programmers are paid for it.

"I think a majority of the full-time people on Linux are now paid to work on Linux," Frye said in an interview.

Though that corporate involvement has meant Linux development is becoming more formal, the improvisational nature of the Linux community still dominates, Frye said. For example, though OSDL and other partnerships mean companies are working to make Linux a better product, no one can guarantee when those improvements will actually emerge.

"Linux is maturing faster than any operating system in the industry. I don't know what we'd want to fix," Frye said.

CNET's Linux Center When customers complain that the Linux development process doesn't have formal enough timetables, "We tell them you'll have to get used to it," he said. "Yes, there is less ability to project the future, but frankly, I don't think that the uncertainties in Linux development are any more than in a proprietary operating system."

Getting Linux to work better on large-scale, corporate servers with many processors is one of the lead goals for the cooperative effort among the Japanese giants and Big Blue, Frye said. This work will be folded into existing "scalability" projects already under way, Frye said.

Also feeding into the effort to get Linux to work on larger systems is continuing work on software IBM released in January that lets programs run several tasks simultaneously under a process called "multithreading."

Another project the companies are working on is the standardization of how Linux keeps tracks of events, especially errors that trip up the computer. Currently, there are no standards for how such events are written to logs, a key part of how higher-level software handles automated tasks such as detecting intruder attacks or notifying administrators of pending problems.

IBM also is helping to improve tools originally released by graphics computer maker SGI that help programmers analyze a "core dump"--essentially, reconstructing the final thoughts of a computer just before it crashed. Such tools are a key part of diagnosing what causes system crashes and fixing those problems.

Frye's Linux Technology Center has 200 programmers working full-time to improve Linux, and he estimates 10 times that number are working within the company on Linux when other activities such as sales or server design are included.

"We kind of lost track , but we believe more than 2,000 IBMers are working full-time on Linux," he said.

The free-wheeling style of the Linux community is still somewhat novel for Big Blue, among the most tradition-bound of computing companies. For example, in the cooperative work with the Japanese companies, "There are no contracts. There's nothing formal," Frye said.

IBM is in the midst of a major Linux push this year, with CEO Lou Gerstner pledging to spend $1 billion on the operating system in 2001.