IBM's Linux contributions

Since 1999 IBM has claimed to have an ever increasing number of people working on Linux - from 185 in 1999 to 600 today. What have those people achieved for Linux?
Written by Paul Murphy, Contributor

When Joe Barr got his first look inside IBM's Linux Technology Center (LTC) back in early 2001 he got pretty gung ho about the wonders this would bring to Linux. Some excerpts:

I began to see the LTC not just as a cool thing happening in my neighborhood, but as hard evidence of IBM's commitment to open source and free software in general, and to Linux in particular.

This is not hype. This is not an ad on national TV proclaiming that Microsoft software "plays well with others." This is IBM the behemoth, the legacy megacorporation, the king of punched cards, and once the monarch of monopolies, making a positive contribution to the open source and free software community.


The LTC was founded in August 1999. Frye said the approximately 185 IBM employees who make up the LTC are located in 16 cities and 6 countries. As Frye put it, the LTC is "a real place -- it just resides on the Web." But as the old IBM marketing line used to go, the billion-dollar internal budget for Linux at IBM this year is just the tip of the iceberg.

So what does the LTC actually do for Linux? Frye observed that in the open source community, everyone basically works on what they are interested in. LTC employees are not free to hack whatever Linux-related code they want, but the LTC works on aspects of Linux that are of interest to IBM.

You can visit the LTC homepage to find out exactly what those aspects are. (See Resources for a link.) The LTC page has references and links to many different Linux-related projects. Frye cited scalability, serviceability, reliability, test, systems management, and journaling filesystems as being important to IBM. That list is long, but not all-inclusive.

The LTC team consists of people from nearly every part of IBM. Frye is obviously proud of the quality of his team. He told me, "We have built a group in the LTC that really takes some of the best from a number of different IBM groups." Those groups include Sequent, OS/2, Tivoli, AIX, and S/390. The LTC isn't very old, but has already made important contributions to Linux.

Did you read about the recent joint effort by Oki Data and IBM to provide Linux drivers for Oki Data printers? That falls under the umbrella of the Omni printer project, which provides GPLed drivers for nearly 300 printers; 8 months ago, that number was only 50. Did you read or hear comments about the size of the latest patch for the 2.4 kernel? That's because of all the S/390-specific code that went in -- courtesy of the LTC.

Now it's fun to notice (well, for me, anyhow) that this was published before the SCO lawsuit left editors allergic to mention of all that AIX PPC expertise cheerfully transiting mainframe Linux on its way into SuSe - and all before IBM's fifty million dollars (allegedly) bought it retroactive permission from Novell - but the point here isn't to belabor the obvious, but to ask what happened to all that committed expertise?

The LTC's mission hasn't really changed. Here's IBM's own description

The LTC's goal is to accelerate the growth of Linux as an enterprise operating system while simultaneously helping IBM brands exploit Linux for market growth. The LTC has programmers involved in numerous Linux projects, including scalability, serviceability, security, network security, networking, file systems, volume management, performance, directory services, standards, documentation, accessibility, test, security certification, systems management, cluster management, virtualization, high availability, storage & I/O, hardware architecture support, power management, reliability, and others required to make Linux an enterprise operating system ready for mission critical workloads.

Staffing, however, has increased more or less continuously over the period - usually in increments associated with local offset requirements on national government purchasing. Here, for example, is a May 2006 LTC size statement courtesy of a Linuxdevices writeup about just such an offset investment in Brazil:

IBM will expand its Brazilian Linux Technology Center (LTC), in order to advance several projects of interest to embedded Linux developers. The $2.2M investment will further projects devoted to Linux-on-Cell and Linux-on-Power, Linux ease-of-use, virtualization, and government security certifications for Linux.

IBM's investment will pay for the completion of a Linux development lab in Hortolandia, and the expansion of a second lab in Campinas, on Brazil's Unicamp campus.

The expansion is expected to enable Brazil's LTC to start work on five new projects, including:

  • Linux development for IBM's Cell processor
  • Linux development for IBM's Power processor
  • Ease of use improvements for Linux on IBM Systems
  • Improved virtualization for Intel-based processors
  • Common Criteria Security certification for Red Hat Enterprise Linux version 5

IBM maintains 38 LTCs around the world. The new investments will make IBM's LTC in Brazil "one of the five largest Centers of its kind in the world," IBM says.

Worldwide, IBM LTCs "comprise" 600 engineers, IBM says, including 300 said to work full-time on Linux "as part of the open source community."

Additionally, IBM maintains "Linux Integration Centers," "Linux Innovation Centers," and "Linux Competency Centers," all of which help customers port applications to Linux, it says.

According to IBM's main linux page that 600 is still the right number:

IBM is a leader in the Linux community with over 600 developers in the IBM Linux Technology Center working on over 100 open source projects in the community.

Although it's not clear how many people worked on Linux or over what periods, I think it's fair to interpret these and many similar numbers accessible via google as suggesting that IBM has, on average over the last seven years, claimed to have had more than 200 full time and 200 part time employees dedicated to improving Linux.

That amounts to more than 1,800 man years - rather more than five times what Sun put in getting Solaris 10 out the door.

What have they been doing?

And what has everybody else been doing?

Here's what Novell says they've been doing with respect to their latest desktop offering:

SUSE® Linux Enterprise Desktop is the market's only enterprise-quality Linux desktop that's ready for routine business use. Developed and backed by Novell, SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop provides market-leading usability, seamless interoperability with existing enterprise computer systems, and dozens of essential office applications. It also delivers unparalleled levels of flexibility for desktop clients. You can deploy it as a general-purpose desktop, use it in thin- or thick-client configurations (for example, kiosks and cash registers), or rely on it for high-end engineering workstations. With SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop, your business can dramatically reduce costs, improve end-user security and increase workforce productivity.

Hyperbole and marketing license apart, Solaris 10 was clearly a transitonal product marking the end of the SunOS 2.X line and the beginning of the 3.0 world, but there's no such advance in SuSe 10.3. Instead, take away adaptation to hardware change and it's still almost certainly better on most common measures than the SuSe 7.1 IBM started from in 1999, but there's no quantum leap - and the significant kernel changes that did happen mostly came from Torvalds et al, not IBM or Novell.

So what has IBM's imputed 1,800+ man years of development commitment done to better Linux?

Here's my top of the head list:


And, of course, the SCO lawsuit.

Editorial standards