IBM has a grand unification plan for its servers. It's called Linux. Indeed, Big Blue is preparing to make sure that its entire eServer family--from low-end Intel systems to high-end mainframes--will support all four major Linux distributions.
Details about the initiative are sketchy, but IBM is expected to provide Caldera, Red Hat, SuSE and TurboLinux with hardware, financial and technical assistance. In return, the Linux vendors will port their respective operating systems to IBM's entire line of eServers--which spans S/390 mainframes, AS/400 minicomputers, RS/6000s, Netfinity and NUMA-Q. The intended result: Linux will be the first operating system available to run on all IBM servers. In theory, this could reduce support and training headaches among IBM's partners and customers.
All four of the Linux players already support IBM's Netfinity servers. And SuSE is beta testing S/390 support. But major gaps remain elsewhere. The AS/400, for instance, has little to no native Linux support. As one Linux vendor puts it, "Who can afford to port to so many different and expensive platforms?"
Nevertheless, having a rich uncle like IBM could help the situation.
Sources say Big Blue already has inked cross-platform deals with Red Hat, SuSE and TurboLinux. But as of press time, Caldera still was negotiating terms of its pending deal with Big Blue. Sources involved in the negotiations expect Caldera to be on board in time for IBM's planned announcement, which is expected this week.
IBM's plan for a single OS that runs across multiple platforms also could go a long way in making all of its platforms more attractive to partners because it gives them the most bang for their buck on training and scalability issues.
Putting the plan on paper and making it work, however, are two different things. Hardware vendors have had mixed results with cross-platform operating-system initiatives in the past.
Sun Microsystems' Solaris, for one, supports Sparc and Intel hardware, but few customers actually use the Intel version. And Digital Equipment, which now is owned by Compaq Computer, once tried to scale Windows NT across its hardware line--from low-end laptops to high-end Alpha servers. But Windows NT for Alpha lacked third-party support and ultimately died in 1999, joining NT for PowerPC and NT for MIPS in the graveyard. It remains to be seen whether IBM can pick up where others failed. The fate of many penguins depends on it.