By the summer of 1999, Linux was picking up steam in the marketplace, especially in areas where IBM was very involved, including Internet infrastructure and supercomputing. At the time, a number of research institutions and leading edge companies were already using clusters of Intel processors running Linux as a way of building relatively inexpensive, and increasingly powerful supercomputers, as well as highly scalable web servers, distributed file and print servers, network firewalls, and other Internet infrastructure applications.
We commissioned a couple of studies, one focused on the use of Linux in supercomputing, and the other on Linux as a high-volume platform for Internet applications. Both studies strongly recommended that IBM embrace Linux across its product lines, that IBM should work closely with the open Linux community as a partner in its development, and that we should establish an organization to coordinate Linux activities across the company.
I was given responsibility for our new Linux strategy and organization. A few weeks after we announced the initiative in January of 2000, I gave a keynote presentation at the Linux World conference in New York City. I used this opportunity to explain IBM’s decision to embrace Linux across all its products and services. Around the same time, I also discussed IBM's Linux strategy in an interview with Charlie Rose - A Conversation about Linux.
Our key message was that we did not view Linux as just another operating system any more than we viewed the Internet as just another network when we announced our Internet initiative four years earlier. We believed that Linux and open source in general were all about leveraging the growing popularity of the Internet to foster collaborative innovation, that is, working with smart people all over the world to jointly solve important problems and develop new, open offerings that would help us do so.In those pre-Web 2.0 days, the community concept behind open source was mystifying to many. They were baffled as to why people would work on open source projects while not getting paid for their efforts. They had trouble understanding the motives of individuals who would work hard on something that did not include direct monetary rewards. They were surprised that IBM had so strongly embraced Linux and that we were willing to work closely with such a seemingly peculiar group of people. They were wondering what its relevance would be to the world of business.
We spent a lot of time explaining that we viewed Linux as part of the evolution toward open standards to help integrate systems, applications and information over the Internet. Linux was then and continues to be the only popular operating system that runs on every single platform regardless of vendor or architecture, a property it shares with just about all major software associated with the Internet.
Even though the software ran only on relatively smaller systems at the time, Linux was already attracting a very strong following of the best and brightest programmers and computer scientists around the world. We could tell that it was only a matter of time before it got significantly better in multiple dimensions important for business applications, including scalability, systems management, reliability and security.A number of companies viewed Linux as a threat to their business models, and mounted some pretty strong attacks against it. They raised concerns about using software developed by an open, distributed community, as opposed to a single vendor, as was typically the case. They spent a lot of time talking about the relatively arcane subject of open source software licenses and, in particular, about the evils of the GPL license used by Linux. There were lawsuits against a few Linux vendors and users, and from time to time, more were threatened.
We persevered because we were convinced that Linux was going to be a success in the marketplace, and that it would lead to all kinds of new innovations. Open, collaborative innovation was nothing new. Collaborating with talented colleagues is part of a long tradition across many disciplines, be it in physics, medicine or law. Working together implies sharing information, whether it is the results of an experiment, a medical trial or open source software. Having your contributions accepted by a major open source project is an honor akin to having a paper accepted in a refereed journal. Tim Berners-Lee actually invented the World Wide Web for the express purpose of facilitating information-sharing in the research community. We should not be surprised that the original Web evolved into Web 2.0 and social networks.
By almost any measure, Linux has achieved great success. It has been widely adopted in business and government, in addition to its continued use in the research and Internet communities. It is used in a wide variety of systems, from small embedded sensors to large supercomputers.
The one area where Linux had failed to achieve a significant market share, personal computers, has now been superseded by its success in smartphones, embedded systems and mobile devices, which use Android, Chrome OS, MeeGo and other Linux variants. Moreover, open source software, a foundational element for Linux, is now well accepted as an important new model of economic production.
But, perhaps most satisfying is the role that Linux has played as a base for innovations of all kinds. Cloud computing, for example, is closely associated with Linux, probably because Linux is used in so many of the more prominent cloud-based systems. Were it not for the success of Linux, I don’t think we would be talking about a transition from the client-server model of computing to a new model based largely on clouds and mobile devices. Most advanced supercomputers use Linux, as do many new smart digital components being embedded in the physical world all around us.
The need for open standards and open innovation that drove the success of Linux continues unabated. The requirement to integrate and share information and applications is only accelerating given our increasingly complex systems and cloud-based computing models. Linux and other open technologies will thus continue to play a very important role, supporting and co-existing with proprietary technologies as in the past.