May 30, 2002

Mid-range Linux: Slowly, very slowly, Linux is coming to the AS/400

- By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols -

Everyone knows about Linux on IBM Intel servers, most people know that IBM is doing well positioning Linux on mainframes, but few people know that IBM is also pushing Linux on the mid-range AS/400 (iSeries) lines.
It's an uphill battle, in part because while there's long been some interest in porting Linux to the AS/400, it's always been a lower priority than other projects for both the Linux community and IBM. But now Linux on the AS/400 is beginning to heat up. Dan Powers, IBM's v.p. of Linux Solutions, says that recently, "we've have had a lot of customers ask for Linux on the iSeries and it's only been in the last few months that our partners are coming out with it."

Rick Kearney, CEO of Mainline Information Systems, a major zSeries and iSeries IBM solution provider and value-added reseller, agrees. "Somewhere in the fourth quarter of 2001, CIO and CEOs got Linux evaluations on their 'to-do' lists now, so they're calling us now to ask what can we (do) to move enterprise services to Linux," says Kearney. "People are just waking up to the power of Linux."

IBM and its partners are ready for them. Today, Red Hat, SuSE, and Turbolinux have distributions that are available on the iSeries. As on the mainframe, SuSE appears to have the most mature Linux available. For example, SuSE has the only 64-bit distribution. Turbolinux is running second with an early lead in China, where it appears as though the AS/400 platform could prove very popular. Red Hat's iSeries offering lags behind its Intel offerings. The company offers Red Hat 7.1, not 7.3, for the AS/400.

Some customers are retrofitting Linux on their older machines. Craig Johnson, IBM's iSeries Linux product manager is on record saying that more than 100 iSeries customers are trying out iSeries Linux in pilot projects. So far, these have been small- and mid-size businesses on smaller systems like the iSeries Model 270s and 820s.

The analysts agree, with reservations. Bill Claybrook, the Aberdeen Group's research director for Linux and Unix, says that while he can see how companies "might be interested in using the AS/400 for server consolidation, it's hard to imagine people buying a new AS/400 just for Linux." He believes that "AS/400 Linux will play only on the existing installed base."

Stacey Quandt, Giga Information Group's Open Source analyst, is more optimistic. She says that the "iSeries has a lot of potential. It enables the dynamic balancing of workloads across multiple partitions, which is of the value to companies that want to allocate resources as needed." She wonders if companies currently going ga-ga for blade servers, 2002's red-hot server architecture craze, might not be better off with an iSeries approach.

The Linux distributors hope the small- to medium-sized businesses that make up the bread and butter of iSeries customers agree. Anita Kratka, Turbolinux's director of alliances and channel sales, says: "We can see AS/400 in the future and it looks good."

Mike Hampton, v.p. of business development for Red Hat, also believes there's "reasonably strong global interest developing in the AS/400 world." Half-joking, he adds, "If you told me two years ago that IBM would be sexy, and Microsoft's biggest threat would be Linux, I would have thought you were crazy."

Crazy like a fox, maybe. IBM has also, according to Powers, persuaded independent software vendors (ISVs) to port their products to AS/400 Linux. For example, Symantec will bring its enterprise firewall program to this platform. This is not a small deal. Claybrook believes this first step is vital if IBM's Linux is to be successful is getting ISVs to invest in porting their applications to IBM's Linux platforms.

One ISV and integrator, the eOne Group, is making a major play on AS/400 Linux. Steve Romweber, its v.p. of channel development, says the company's flagship program, eOne Commerce, a Java Web e-commerce package, runs on multiple operating systems, but eOne was persuaded to move to Linux when it tested its application on NT, AIX, and OS/400 for a customer. The company found that while "it was running OK, when we decided to try the application with Red Hat Linux and the performance went through the roof." Since then, eOne Group has been an IBM Linux believer.

It's more than performance, though. Romweber cites IBM middleware such as the Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition WebSphere application server and the DB2 database as reasons that his company supports Linux on the AS/400. And, last but not least, "AS/400s just keep running and Linux just keeps working."

Romweber says the company recently sold its application running on an iSeries and Linux to a major national company based in Atlanta. He thinks this will make eOne's customer, "the first people to deploy an eCommerce site on an AS/400 running Linux."

While ISVs are coming on board, getting hardware resellers to see the advantages of Linux to their bottom line is proving harder.

IDC analysts, Julie Gage and Kevin Restivo, in their report, "Resellers Lukewarm on Linux," say resellers, while interested in Linux, don't see any short-term gains in putting time and money in Linux when they have little of either. In informal interviews with several mid-Atlantic AS/400 VARs, we found the same attitude.

Mainline's Kearney, though, would consider this hesitancy foolish. "We're equating this to Windows. When Windows 3.0 came out, people said it was cute, but 'it will be a long time before I run accounting on Windows.' Now, you have billion dollar companies running accounting on NT. Today, it's the same thing, people see Linux as this cute little server operating system for file sharing and Web serving; that's going to change."

He also believes Linux on the iSeries is where Linux was on the zSeries a year ago: interesting, but unproven. Soon though, Kearney says, "Mainline will be able to show real-world results with office production setups with up to 50,000 users on one physical box and high-end, but inexpensive, applications like customer relationship management that will be as very bit as viable as the high priced guy, but they'll be cheaper and run on Linux."

Come that day, when Mainline and other companies show that Linux and AS/400 make a potent one-two, Kearney thinks existing AS/400 customers and firms considering Solaris and W2K, will start considering this mid-range Linux for their companies.

Kearney realizes that the iSeries and Linux might not fly. From where he sits, "it's still early in the game, AS/400 Linux is either going to work quickly or it will die quickly like network stations and OS/2."

No matter how profitable Linux gets, or doesn't get, on the AS/400, Powers says that "OS/400 isn't going anywhere; it has some of the most passionate and loyal customers around." So Linux on the AS/400 will always be "an add-on, not a replacement for the native operating system." IBM and partners just hope that it will be an extremely successful add-on.


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