May 3, 2002

Large Linux vendor competition heats up: Good for customers, also good for Linux?

- By Grant Gross -

The competition among large tech companies promoting Linux initiatives is heating up, with Hewlett-Packard in particular making a concerted effort to challenge IBM's assumed leadership. The result should be more choices for customers, especially big businesses looking to deploy Linux, and this mostly friendly rivalry may end up being good for Linux, if the companies involved continue to make contributing back to the community a priority.
The latest round of posturing came when analyst D.H. Brown Associates released a new report "Linux Strategies and Solutions: Linux Server Suppliers Contend for Leadership" in late April. Within days, HP and IBM had released dueling press releases about the report, HP touting what the report called its "most clearly communicated" Linux strategy for customers and the industry. IBM followed with a press release a couple of days later, pointing out what the report called its broad product line, Linux community leadership and a couple of other areas of leadership in the Linux server market. Dell and Oracle cited the report in a press release a few days later.

From the report's author

Report author Pierre Fricke, executive v.p. at D.H. Brown, says every company profiled in the report -- also including Compaq and Sun -- could be seen as a leader in a certain area of the Linux server space. "We didn't declare an overall leader or winner," says Fricke, a former IBM employee. "Quite frankly, from a strategic point of view it's really impossible to do that at this point ... You really can't say IBM's the winner."

Fricke does acknowledge that IBM has been a leader longest -- his last such report in April 2000 cited IBM as the large vendor Linux server leader. "HP's done a lot in the last year," he adds. "I'd say HP and IBM, for different reasons and different focuses, both are very strong leaders in the Open Source community. You can't really use the word, 'peer,' because they do things quite differently and they focus in different areas, but HP has certainly in the last 18 to 12 months, has stepped up its activity dramatically."

HP's recent push

Beyond that report, HP has been making a concerted effort in recent months to get the message about its Linux initiatives out. HP received a lot of press when it hired high-profile Open Source advocate Bruce Perens in late 2000. But as recently as last October, HP hired an internal PR person specifically to get its Linux message out.

Recently, HP has been pushing Linux on high-end workstations, such as those used by movie studio DreamWorks, and for supercomputers like the powerful machine HP is building for the U.S. Department of Energy to simulate A-bomb explosions and do other research. HP also gets notice from Fricke for its HP Secure Linux OS.

Perens notes that his priority of Linux first and HP "a far second" wouldn't have gotten him hired at most companies, including the more button-down IBM. "[HP] didn't hire me to be quiet," Perens says. "They've always meant to have a stature in this business, and they've always meant to differentiate themselves from other players."

Perens says he likes what IBM's been doing with Linux -- he notes the two companies work together on about 50 Open Source projects -- and the TV ads featuring Linux help him talk to members of Congress who at least know something about the operating system. "At the same time, I want to poke a little fun," he adds. "When IBM said they'd be spending a billion dollars this year on Linux, they didn't say it'd be all on advertising."

The goal at HP is to put out the message that "we get this Linux thing more than other companies," says Perens. He points to a recent Web patent flap as evidence that IBM still has a ways to go to fully embrace open standards.

"This business has room for more than one player," Perens says. "I like competing with IBM, it's fun. Obviously, us Free Software people don't want to see a monopoly. We'd rather companies like HP and IBM have a piece of the pie, and not the whole pie."

From Perens' perspective, any recent HP Linux push is just a culmination of a year and a half of focusing on Linux. But Robert Gadson, competitive strategies manager for the HP Linux Business Development Organization, does acknowledge that his company has been more aggressive about getting the word out in recent months.

Gadson goes back to HP CEO Carly Fiorina's keynote address at January LinuxWorld Conference and Expo as a starting point for a push to promote HP's Linux offerings. HP is actively working on a more aggressive Linux marketing strategy, he says. Gadson suggests the large Linux vendor competition is a two-horse race, although Dell and D.H. Brown might disagree.

Gadson suggests IBM's Linux strategy is confusing. "We've been able to focus on the customer side of things rather than having, as IBM seems to have, an awful lot of different technologies. They do tend to have a rather large collection of products and technologies, rather than a concise strategy and roadmaps."

Customers tend to see Linux's benefit as being able to standardize on one platform, such as Intel, Gadson contends. He acknowledges, however, that selling Linux in itself doesn't make for a strong bottom line, so support services are key to making a Linux strategy work, and it's not smart, he says, to have a strategy of "Linux or nothing."

"As many of the only Linux-only companies are finding, it's very, very difficult to make a good business model out of Linux," he says.

IBM speaks

IBM, for its part, prefers to talk about its Linux initiatives, not the competition. An IBM PR person says she'd have difficulty finding someone at IBM to talk about HP or other competitors. "If HP wants to talk about their competition, they can," she says.

Daniel Frye, director of the Linux Technology Center, notes that Linux has gone "from a wave of the future to a wave of the present." He touts IBM's "thousands of customers" and its support for Linux across its hardware and software platforms, including mainframes, Intel-based servers, DB2 and WebSphere.

"It's really gone from startup activity to something that is a fundamental part of the business," he says of Linux. "These customers have put their mission-critical applications into production on Linux."

HP's Perens agrees that is the direction Linux is taking. "People aren't asking asking if Linux is real anymore," he says. "People aren't asking, 'Should I do Linux?' People aren't even asking when. Now, the question is, 'How?" "

Frye predicts Linux will continue to move to "the center of the enterprise." He sees more large companies running Linux on large back-end databases, for example, instead of just on the outer edges of static Web servers.

Asked about increased competition from HP and other companies, Frye says: "We've welcomed them all to the fray, and most of them are behind us. It's evidence that we've had the right strategy -- in picking Linux, we've picked a growth market and a market where customers are successfully deploying. You'd expect competition to go where the money is."

He ducked a question about whether the competition was good for IBM. "You know, we're focused on our customers. We just don't spend that much time focusing on the competition; they're following us for a change. What we spend our time worrying about is how we can take Linux into new markets as it matures."

He adds: "We don't see any change in the Linux evolution. We think that it will continue to grow market share and take market share from a range of proprietary platforms. The Linux operating system itself continues to mature rapidly -- more and more enterprise features are going into Linux, and the community is getting stronger."

Good for customers, good for Linux?

What's this all mean for Linux? D.H. Brown's Fricke says the competition gives customers choice, not only among Linux vendors but also in looking at Linux instead of Microsoft products.

"If the world becomes 80%, 90% Microsoft servers, then it becomes very hard for companies like Oracle and IBM to compete," he says. "You start buying into the .Net proposition, and you can't really buy into a little bit of .Net. Either you're .Net, or you're not."

He adds: "If the J2EE community and the middleware community like IBM and these other companies don't have another high-volume platform like Linux, they've got a serious long-term strategic exposure. They're highly motivated to see Linux be successful. The whole thing helps the industry move forward, because now you have a street fight."

Fricke also sees this increased competition as good for the Linux community, with companies like IBM and HP having a stake in investing in Open Source software. Both companies employ hundreds of Open Source-focused workers, and HP's Gadson notes his company is currently expanding its Linux organization.

"Those companies are now motivated to make contributions to make it better," Fricke says. "Some of the Open Source community is being hired by these people, it's really a mutually beneficial thing. People get paid to do cool Open Source work."


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