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The Ultimate Install Fest: Linux on the IBM System/390 - page 5

Recycling the Mainframe with Linux

  • July 31, 2000
  • By Scott Courtney

The IBM team that has built Linux on S/390 reminds me a lot of the team that built the original IBM PC back around 1980. Both teams seem, at least from the outside, to have a certain "renegade" feel to them. Clearly the senior management at IBM is behind the Linux team now, but one has to wonder--as one wondered in the days when the PC was new--were the managers on board from the beginning?

Even while Linux for S/390, and Linux on IBM's other hardware, opens up new markets for the company, there has to be some concern over what this will do to its other markets. What if Linux cuts into sales of OS390 and OS390 applications? Will the one-time pricing model that seems normal in the PC industry, or the zero-pricing model from open source, undercut IBM's margins in other areas through price pressure?

I asked Alex Stark if his team was feeling pressure from other parts of IBM because of these issues, but he says it is not seen as a problem. Stark emphasizes that IBM views Linux--on S/390 or elsewhere--as one part of a very large market strategy. He says that Linux may help to drive more S/390 sales, but that this is no more important than the ability to market a single operating system on all IBM hardware, from laptops to mainframes.

Stark expects IBM's overall business to grow, because Linux versions of IBM database, messaging, and system management products will be strong revenue generators. IBM also hopes to profit from value-added support services provided through IBM Global Services, and from consulting contracts.

I asked Pete McCaffrey just where the minimum entry point is, pricing-wise, for the S/390 line. It is lower now, with the introduction of Integration Facility for Linux and of Virtual Integration Facility, than it was a week ago, but it is still high--especially since there must be at least one general-purpose 390 CPU in the machine, even if Linux will be the only operating system. On the other hand, McCaffrey says that Linux for S/390 will also run on IBM's smaller (and cheaper) Multiprise 3000 midrange machines (shown in the accompanying figure).

Because Linux for S/390 is so compatible with other ports, developers can deploy their systems on Multiprise or even Intel PC hardware and still have a growth path to full System/390 hardware as their needs increase.

IBM, Open Standards, and Open Source

IBM has a long history of setting standards and then trying to force the world to adopt them. For years, SNA was the network architecture as far as they were concerned, and EBCDIC was the character encoding standard. Microsoft is famous for such behavior today, but didn't invent it.

Times have changed, though, both outside and inside IBM. Over the past decade or so, IBM has been whacked on the head with the open-standards stick by so many customers that the message finally sank in. And once it did, the philosophy has spread like wildfire within the company just as it has in the world at large. Witness, for example, the ubiquity of TCP/IP network support. How recent it was that well-informed people were sure IBM would never support TCP/IP on a mainframe--IBM pushed SNA, and it pushed Token Ring, not the Ethernet that most other companies used. Now just about every piece of IBM hardware--including the System/390--supports both of these standards, right out of the box.

So it has been with software, as well. Says Alex Stark, "It's tremendous how IBM understands the value of open standards. The old days are gone....It's really fun to work here in [this] company....I can see changes every day sometimes."

Not that it doesn't care if IBM-specific products are the mainstream standard. Stark is quick to add, "We want to make what we're doing here a success. That means customers using and valuing the 390 platform and product." But he doesn't see the desire to sell IBM products as being at odds with the open source philosophy. "We want to have very good relations with the open source world....It is a world of give-and-take. We have taken something from the open source world, and we want to give something back." Among other code, IBM has recently released its Journaled File System (JFS) from the AIX environment into the open source community.

Stark emphasizes the participation of IBM developers in the open source arena at large, not just producing IBM products. IBM programmers are active on the Internet discussion forums and project teams, and "discuss items that don't even affect [IBM] directly." He says that there is a quality difference in the code produced in an open environment:"Open source is a world where you have to be good to succeed. Everyone can read your code!"

He adds that the IBM programmers--himself included--enjoy the collaborative atmosphere surrounding Linux and other open source projects. That's one of the objectives Stark has for his team: "We also want to have fun here." The programmers in Boeblingen know their stuff: I thought I was a pretty good hardware geek until I started e-mailing with some of IBM's mainframe wizards. I am now much more humble. And they seem passionate about what they do. Although nongeeks might disagree with the definition of the word "fun", these IBMers seem to be having some of it.


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