IBM puts Linux converts on display

Big Blue is on a mission to convince others that the operating system is worthy of real-world use, though it acknowledges that its own interests are a motivation.

Stephen Shankland
Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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3 min read
NEW YORK--IBM, having embraced Linux, now is on a mission to convince others that the operating system is worthy of real-world use.

To further its cause, IBM put on display at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo here four big-name Linux customers--clothing retailer L.L. Bean, digital animation studio Pixar, department store chain Boscov's and financial services giant Salomon Smith Barney.

"Linux readiness is far ahead of the world's perception of it," said Steve Solazzo, vice president of Linux operations at IBM.

Harry Roberts, Boscov's chief information officer and a Linux convert, backed up that view.

"Linux was scary. We're old mainframe guys," Roberts said.

But the open-source operating system worked well, and Boscov's has been moving more and more functions to its mainframes, which can be "partitioned" to act like numerous independent servers simultaneously.

Solazzo acknowledges that Big Blue has a selfish interest in promoting the operating system it has adopted so enthusiastically. IBM likes Linux because it runs on numerous different types of computer systems, including IBM's four server lines, whose differences can be diminished by running the same operating system atop them.

It is a problem not faced by rival Sun Microsystems, which has only one chip line, UltraSparc, and one operating system, Solaris.

IBM committed itself to spending $1 billion on Linux in 2001, and said Wednesday that it recouped almost all of that investment the same year.

Solazzo said Big Blue sold hundreds of millions of dollars of Linux-ready products during the year both in its xSeries Intel server line and in its zSeries mainframe line. He predicted that the iSeries special-purpose server line for smaller businesses will see a similar surge in interest this year as happened on the mainframe in 2001.

Three of the four customers who spoke Wednesday to IBM business partners at the Linux show used Linux on their mainframes, which are powerful but expensive servers once expected to be rendered extinct by Intel and Unix servers. But mainframe usage is increasing, and IBM server chief Bill Zeitler said "almost all" of the mainframe processing capacity IBM sold in the fourth quarter of 2001 was for Linux.

Pixar was the lone company of the four that didn't have a mainframe story to tell. Instead, it was advocating Linux on the workstations its teams of animators use to create their digital characters and complex effects such as animated facial features. Pixar so far has installed about 175 of a planned 400 Intel-based IBM IntelliStation workstations running Linux, said Darwyn Peachey, Pixar's vice president of technology.

"By the end of March, we'll have essentially phased out our SGI (workstations) and replaced them with IntelliStations," Peachey said.

Hewlett-Packard, which won a similar deal at DreamWorks SKG, had also bid for the Pixar account, a source familiar with the matter said.

L.L. Bean began sampling Linux in April 2001, said senior systems engineer Patrick Carroll, who bought a copy of SuSE Linux at Best Buy for $60 and applied some mainframe updates from IBM to get it working for testing purposes.

"Things ran so well, we decided we needed to port something over there," he said. The company began with an overtaxed e-mail system that sent messages to customers about their orders.

"The trial started on a Monday, it went into production on Thursday afternoon, and it has not failed since," Carroll said. The older Sun system could send five messages per second, but the mainframe sends 30 per second, he said.

L.L. Bean will move many other jobs to Linux mainframe partitions in the future, he said, including the WebSphere application server, the WebSphere commerce suite and a communication channel to the DB2 database.