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
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
"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
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
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.