November 5, 2001

Selling Linux: IBM's Susan DeKeukelaere

Author: JT Smith

- by Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
Susan DeKeukelaere, IBM's program director for zSeries Marketing, doesn't seem to think it's hard to "sell" Linux to corporate honchos, at least in the mainframe marketplace she covers. "We sample the existing 390 customers periodically," she says, "and over 65 percent are expressing interest in Linux."Susan says IBM's mainframe-level customers are interested in solving business problems; they're trying to contain IT costs, improve time to market for their products, build Web applications, improve their supply chains, and that sort of thing. At Susan's level, "selling Linux" is not operating system advocacy, and the people "buying Linux" are buying Linux-based solutions because the numbers say they should. They are not "supporting Linux" because they think Penguins are cute or because they have any particular feelings one way or the other about the GPL.

Indeed, Susan says the questions she gets asked are along the lines of, "What [Linux] applications are available today?" And to the kind of people who buy a mainframe so that they can consolidate services like file and print servers, firewalls, DNS, Web servers and such on one big, ultra-reliable machine instead of maintaining hundreds of smaller ones, the answer is "plenty."

Many IBM customers ask about support more than anything else. Susan says, "They want to know if they're going to have a supported distribution." Currently, IBM works with TurboLinux and SuSE on 390-level hardware, and, she adds, IBM is "... also working with Red Hat but they don't have their [390] product in the marketplace yet." And there are also all those IBM business partners out there, all over the world, a growing number of whom sell Linux-based support services, plus IBM's own service plans.

Even though Microsoft loves to point out that there are many more MCSEs and other people familiar with their products than there are Unix or Linux gurus, Susan says the growing availability of Linux-trained sysadmins is a major sales point for her customers. She says, "Students are starting to come out of universities with a wealth of Linux skills," and expects the number of Linux-knowledgeable workers to increase in the future, because "universities are excited about Linux."

The fact that a command line-skilled administrator may demand a higher salary than a minimally-trained "point-and-click" Windows networking person did not even enter the conversation. IBM's z-series customers cannot afford to nickle-and-dime on a salary or two when it comes to a complex and expensive computer at the heart of their companies. And many of these companies already have Unix/Linux people on board. Susan says it is common for 390 buyers to have "almost every operating system" running at one place or another in their operation.

One thing Susan and her coworkers have that helps them sell Linux-based S/390 solutions (remember, IBM sells solutions, not an operating system per se) is solid written marketing material, like the white papers featured on this page, and when they talk about more university students coming out with knowledge of both Linux and the S/390, they can point to this page to show they're putting their money where their mouth is.

Another major advantage held by IBM, although Susan didn't mention it, is the old "nobody ever got fired for buying IBM" industry dictum that has been partially replaced by "nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft." If IBM is pushing Linux at the enterprise level, and Microsoft is pushing Windows 2000 (or XP professional), which one wins the "safest choice" contest? It is possible that IBM + Linux gets the high score. There's a lot of grey hair in the top ranks of the world's largest companies, and these oldsters (by IT industry standards) have been bombarded with "IBM is the industry standard" propaganda, in some cases, since before Bill Gates was born.

But the key here, even beyond IBM's world-class branding and marketing material, is their solutions-based marketing approach. Linux is not a special thing, held up as having any special mystique. To IBM's "big iron" marketers, it is just one of many tools offered to customers that can help them run their businesses more efficiently.

Should more people selling Linux-based products and services use this methodology? Is it time for Linux to stop being an "upstart" operating system and become part of the mainstream at all corporate IT levels? Isn't it about time that Linux became a standard part of all systems packagers' and VARs' (Value Added Resellers') everyday toolkits, even those whose primary concentration is still Windows-based solutions?


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