by Charles Babcock, Inter@ctive Week
While some see Linux as a low-priced alternative operating system for vendors to push out the bargain basement of their main product lines, computing giant IBM thinks Linux has the power to change the face of business. In fact, John Patrick, IBM vice president of Internet technology, goes so far as to call Linux a "disruptive" technology that will generate improved ways of conducting e-business, displacing older technology.
IBM isn't the first to say so, but thus far, the idea that Linux will change the way companies do business online has been restricted to a handful of the most zealous Linux advocates and Internet start-ups. Now that IBM is saying it, Eric Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative, says, "IT [information technology] managers will take notice."
Part of IBM's stance is that it is a good student of disruptive technologies. After all, it has been disrupted by a few itself.
First there was the Intel-based PC, which overturned IBM's preferred method of distributing end-user computing services via mainframe to dumb terminal. Then there was the Transport Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), which eventually disrupted more secure, sophisticated networking protocols such as IBM's Systems Network Architecture when it became accepted on the Internet.
"It takes the greatest sinner to know how to repent. IBM is very enlightened on this issue," Patrick says.
IBM has been steadily expanding its list of Linux offerings. The company is in the process of porting Linux to the System 390 mainframe so that a developer producing software to run under Linux will have the widest possible choice of platforms on which to run it. "It runs great on S/390. It runs great on the AIX/Power PC, it runs great on [Intel-based] Netfinity servers," he said, citing three IBM product lines.
Linux runs on other vendor's hardware as well, giving developers of e-commerce applications the widest possible target. The result, Patrick says, will be more e-business software developed for Linux and more businesses running Linux servers because the software will exist for the business applications to talk to each other.
While many observers think of Linux as a successful developer's platform, Patrick says its disruptive effect is already being felt among Internet start-ups, which like its low price and high reliability. It's now gaining strength with well-established businesses. Worldwide, Linux spending by the top 100 financial institutions will grow 32 percent per year to over $200 million by 2003, IBM spokesmen say, citing figures from The Tower Group in Needham, Mass.
"Linux is going to change the way we think about operating systems. It's going to become a standard operating system," with business value added by developing applications and middleware on top of it, Patrick says.
As an omnipresent commodity operating system, software developers will pour their efforts into creating applications that are useful on the standard operating system, rather than making money by porting applications from one operating system to another. "Porting is unproductive work. It doesn't add any value to the application," he said.
Disruptive technologies "are game changers. They introduce a discontinuity into the way we think about things," Patrick says. Just as the PC disrupted the mainframe, Linux will disrupt and replace many of today's proprietary operating systems.
IBM is merely commenting on "something that's already happening," says Raymond, whose Open Source Initiative has sought to open corporate doors to volunteer-developed open source code. "The leading edge dot coms have already figured this out."
At one time, the major proprietary networking vendors could ask, "What is this rinky-dink, university-borne, TCP/IP protocol?" says Dave Sifry, chief technology officer of Linuxcare, a San Francisco-based Linux services company. No one owned the Internet protocols, which were based on standards that anyone could access. Berkeley Software distributed them free with Unix.
Their role grew because they were vendor-neutral, and many parties found it useful to base products on a standard already set in the public arena.
"Linux has got all the same factors. So the question is, What is the secondary effect going to be?" Sifry asks. He believes that much of the Internet and enterprise computing of the future will be powered by Linux, in part because it is vendor-neutral, it is being developed rapidly, and it is being spread through many varied vendors.
The result, Sifry says, is the "network effect," where the value of Linux goes up faster than the number of Linux servers installed, because Linux software in one spot can accomplish more by communicating with other Linux applications around the network.