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It's Not IBM Linux, but Close: IBM AIX 5L

Merging Closed and Open Source

September 3, 2000

It's not quite the long-rumored IBM distribution of Linux, but the next version of IBM's AIX--long regarded as one of the most proprietary of the commercial Unices--goes the farthest in melding Linux technologies with an older, established version of UNIX. And, in the process, IBM AIX 5L raises the issue of how far software distributed under Open Source/Free Software licenses can be incorporated into an existing product without triggering licensing issues that would force the release of the entire product as an Open Source or Free Software product.

In fact, AIX 5L is an amalgamation of technologies from several sources, as older technology from AIX will be blended with new technology (DYNIX/ptx, multi-path I/O, NUMA, and a GPLed journaling file system is coming from IBM, while UNIX System 5 standard technologies is coming from SCO UnixWare), a set of Linux tools, and the technology results of the Project Monterey initiative. The 5 in AIX 5L stands for version 5, while the L stands for Linux.

Don't hold your breath waiting to work with AIX 5L, however. The release of AIX 5L 5.0 will come this fall and will be a basic AIX update with the partial addition of IA-64 technology and other management tools (like an improved Workload Manager with the ability to manage disk I/O, CPU, and memory; Java 2 Version 1.3 support; TCP/IP enhancements; and the UNIX SVR4 subsystem). Version 5.1, due out next spring, will include the Linux technology as well as full support for the IA-64.

According to Andy Wachs, program director of UNIX strategy for IBM, AIX 5L is really designed to extend Linux past its 32-bit roots and give enterprises an upgrade path. In other words, IBM is saying that enterprises should shun 64-bit Linux in favor of AIX 5L, since AIX 5L will contain a set of essential Linux tools.

"This gives developers a chance to run Linux on enterprise-class systems. I think that some customers will choose to run a Linux heterogeneous environment, while others will run a more tradition[al] AIX network environment using Linux on the low end," Wachs said. "AIX is typically used in emerging and enterprise applications, and we expect that to continue."

IBM isn't calling this Linux compatibility, but rather Linux affinity, a squishy term that includes Linux application source compatibility, compliance with emerging Linux standards, and a GNU/Linux build-time environment with tools and utilities that combine to facilitate the development and deployment of Linux applications on AIX 5L. Linux affinity also includes AIX/Linux interoperability verification and will benefit customers looking to use Linux for front-end Web serving and AIX 5L for transaction and data management.

Interestingly, despite IBM's commitment to the GNOME Foundation, AIX 5L will ship with both KDE and GNOME, as well as several GNU tools and the RPM tools for software distribution. So far Wachs doesn't foresee other Open Source technologies being incorporated into AIX 5L, although he admited that the future inclusion of the Apache Web server (which is released under a BSD-style license and not the GPL) would be a logical addition.

The inclusion of so many GPLed tools--which could be viewed as an essential part of the operating system given how IBM is deploying AIX 5L--will not change AIX's status as closed-source software, however. Technically, all GPLed software will be released on a separate CD-ROM and not considered to be part of AIX, Wachs said, although there are some IBM enhancements (such as the journaled file system) that will be released both as binaries and as source code. Still, this distribution method seems to strain the language of GPL and certainly comes close to directly violating the spirit of the GPL, which does not allow for closed-source tools based on Free Software.

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