August 18, 2011

IBM's Irving Wladawsky-Berger Talks Linux Then and Now

The second day of LinuxCon North America 2011 kicked off with a key figure to Linux's success, Dr. Irving Wladawsky-Berger. Formerly responsible for IBM's response to emerging technologies, Wladawsky-Berger talked about the disruptive force of Linux then and now, and IBM's relationship with Linux through the years.

Dr. Irving Wladawsky-BergerFew people are as qualified as Wladawsky-Berger to address the history of Linux. While at IBM, Wladawsky-Berger helped recognize Linux's potential well before other companies took the fledgling OS seriously. He started by talking about his history with Linux, beginning in 1999. He says that he was excited by Linux in two areas, supercomputing and application development. The appeal for Linux in application development, says Wladawsky-Berger, was because it ran or could run on all of the hardware that IBM supported.

As part of his presentation he showed some of the slides that he used during a keynote for LinuxWorld 2000. The presentation, called "Linux and the Next Generation of e-business." The slides, looking back, seem surprisingly prescient but were daring at the time.

Wladawsky-Berger says that at the time analysts asked, "what the hell do you want with Linux? With another operating system?" The answer, he says, was very succinct. "We did not look at Linux as just another operating system any more than we looked at the Internet as just another network." The reasons that people embraced the Internet had little to do with TCP/IP, and the reason that IBM embraced Linux has little to do with the Linux kernel. IBM knew the kernel would get better, and viewed Linux "as a platform for innovation into the future, just like we viewed the Internet."

"We cut out a lot of unnecessary debates" about what hardware and operating systems to support, says Wladawsky-Berger. Once everybody embraced Linux, the debates were over. The same way anything you did would support TCP/IP, all innovations would run on Linux. In fact, Wladawsky-Berger says that Linux was the only operating system you could be sure would support architectures that haven't been invented yet.

Rough Roads Ahead

Even though things have obviously worked out well for IBM's support of Linux, Wladawsky-Berger says it wasn't always easy. He referenced the SCO lawsuit, and says that he "felt a little sorry" that he'd just appointed someone to the job of heading up Linux support in IBM but they were now saddled with the lawsuit.

One might expect Wladawsky-Berger to be bitter or hold a grudge against "the other side's trophy lawyer," but Wladawsky-Berger praised SCO's lead counsel as a good lawyer. However, he did say that it would be interesting to get SCO's "trophy lawyer" and Eben Moglen together on a panel at a future LinuxCon to talk about the case. "It was very interesting." Happily, IBM was on the right side of history against SCO.

He also addressed other criticism of Linux, especially the "fascinating matter" of people who didn't like Linux saying it was a "communist consipiracy." He noted that IBM had probably been called "capitalist pigs," before that — but never "communist." In 2003, he says, "being a communist was kind of quaint... if you really look at it, there are only two major communist countries left" in the Soviet model, North Korea and his native Cuba. Not exactly the countries one would choose to launch a plan for world domination.

Linux as Platform for Innovation

Looking to the future, Wladawsky-Berger addressed the idea of processors hitting the "wall" for Moore's Law. He says that the "answer from evolution" was the Cambrian Explosion when, instead of the energy of evolution going towards making the cells more efficient, it was directed to making complex organisms. "I really think that's the direction I see for computing, the basic component may be good enough in continuing to try to get the last few percent is not that interesting... a Cambrian Explosion of applications that leverage the technology." He says he's not worried about components slowing down, as innovation is already moving up the stack.

Part of this Cambrian Explosion? Mobile devices. Wladawsky-Berger says that innovation has been moving to mobile devices, which are also helping to close the "digital divide," and offer widespread access to applications and solutions. "This changes the whole picture for many, many, things."

Smart Planet

The world, says Wladawsky-Berger is becoming "increasingly instrumented" and interconnected. "All the things that we are putting these devices in are becoming more intelligent. This is opening up gigantic new applications to the world of IT. Electric grid management, water management... there is practically nothing that cannot benefit from becoming more intelligent with a smart sensor" wired up to the cloud, with applications sending back information on how to "do it better."

Naturally, Linux is at the center of IBM's "smarter planet" technologies.

The focus for the smarter planet is on the population centers — cities. By 2030, he noted that more than 60% of the population is expected to live in cities. By 2050, cities are expected to make up more than 70% of the population. "There is a lot of work to look at cities as systems of systems... this is the kind of God-awful problem we love. There's nothing we love more than the complex problems imaginable, especially when we didn't cause the complexity." Wladawsky-Berger says it's natural that people would look to IBM to help solve these problems, with Linux at the center of smarter planet and smarter city solutions.

One side effect of highly integrated systems, says Wladawsky-Berger, is unpredictable and emergent systems. "Things will happen that you cannot anticipate." What's the answer? Wladawsky-Berger says that computing has to apply the answers from other sciences to systems analytics. He says that it started with high energy physics, applying brute force computing to "vast amounts" of information with powerful computers and sophisticated algorithms.

Another stage towards intelligent computing was Deep Blue, which managed to become very, very good at chess. Even harder? Engaging in natural conversation in human language. This brings us to Watson, which analyzed massive amounts of data in parallel. Now IBM is working to apply Watson-kind of analytics for health care applications and other computing problems. (And it goes without saying that Watson runs on Linux, right?)

Call to Action

Wladawsky-Berger finished his keynote with a call to action, imploring the audience not to lose sight of what makes Linux so important. What's "precious" about Linux, he says, is the community. "That's the one thing we can absolutely never lose... we need to keep the ecosystem going so we can address the most important issues that society has."

Coming out at the end of the keynote, Linux Foundation CEO Jim Zemlin mused on IBM's backing of Linux from early stages. "It's pretty impressive... just how much IBM got it right," says Zemlin, compared to all those who got it wrong. How did IBM get it right? According to Wladawsky-Berger, it all boils down to knowing how to do research and development. "The reason I think we got so much of it right, we thought a lot about it. It was just old-fashioned hard work by smart people, to inform us where the world was headed."