Whos Gonna Sign For This?

Linux does the heavy lifting, as open-source rolls into selected glasshouses.

IBM business partners are pushing a lot of big iron these days, and they may get an added boost this year from an unexpected source: Linux.

IBM reports that its solutions-provider partners drove 22 percent of its worldwide System/390 sales in 2000, with annual partner-driven mainframe revenue growing at a 30 percent clip.

Thats quite a turnaround for IBM, which had kept its mainframe business to itself until 1994. The enterprise server channel kicked into high gear in the late 1990s, as customers replaced aging mainframes with Y2K-compliant machines.

With the date-change bug a memory, partners are looking to Linux to provide the next mainframe boost. The reasoning is that traditional mainframe shops will take to Linux on the mainframe as a means for consolidating Unix servers, solutions providers say. Linux also may expand the mainframe market, luring customers who have never before purchased the big boxes.

"We can open it up to people who would have thrown us out two years ago," says Eric Vaughan, president and CEO of IntelliWare Systems Inc., an IBM business partner.

"Weve had a fairly static [customer] base over the years," says Vaughan. "But with Linux, we might actually see people who [previously] have not chosen mainframes before consolidate and move to the mainframe environment."

IBM remains very bullish on Linux. At last weeks Linux World Conference and Expo in New York, IBM led the parade of top technology companies embracing the operating system. "Linux is for real, and Linux is ready for real business," IBM president and COO Sam Palmisano told conference attendees during a keynote address.

Palmisano says Linux is quickly becoming an alternative to Windows NT and Solaris, because programmers are learning and writing for Linux.

Still, Linux is far from a de facto standard on commodity Intel servers and higher-end hardware, particularly mainframes. Most partners say only selected customers are exploring Linux on the mainframe. And, in most cases, the deployments are merely pilot projects.

Les Davids, general manager of GlassHouse Systems, an S/390 specialist, says multiple customers have started Linux-on-the-mainframe pilots, working through such issues as whether to run Linux natively or under VM/ ESA (IBMs mainframe operating system). Davids says initial mainframe Linux deployments involve Web hosting and mail servers.

Davids expects the high-end Linux market to take off later this year but adds that a greater range of applications is critical. "We need more people putting mission-critical applications on it," he says.

Broad Linux application support is among IBMs top priorities, adds Sam Albert, president of Sam Albert Associates, a consultancy. "The key dependency is how many software developers they can convince to write in Linux," Albert says.

Enter Infocrossing Inc., a managed services provider that is developing Linux porting tools and plans to work closely with IBM, says Tom Laudati, senior VP of enterprise engineering at Infocrossing.

IntelliWare, meanwhile, aims to provide planning, implementation and support services for mainframe-based Linux. The company, for example, is a certified service provider for SuSEs Linux for S/390 package. IntelliWare has dispatched engineers to Germany to work with SuSE, which announced general availability of its S/390 product in October.

"We need to get out in front and be ready with service and support," Vaughan says. "We have to anticipate where customers are going."

At GlassHouse, expected Linux demand has prompted the services company to develop its first software product. The companys Linux Manager software manages, deploys and tracks multiple Linux instances running on a single machine.

Several customers are testing GlassHouses product, says Davids, adding that Linux on the mainframe runs multiple images of Linux, allowing companies to consolidate numerous processes onto one physical box.

"I think there is going to be a lot of potential to drive our S/390 sales, as people centralize," Davids says.

If the boom does happen, IBM and its allies can thank an unexpected source.