Is Big Blue a Desktop Linux Friend or Foe?

Perhaps it was sheer exhaustion after all the arguments of late, but Linux bloggers have been relatively quiet over the past few days.

IBM, oddly enough, seemed to be the topic of most frequent conversation recently, and on several fronts.

The first was yet another thread dating back to LinuxCon, which Linux Girl is hereby awarding her “Event Most Likely to Spark a Contentious Debate” award.

‘Why IBM Won’t Do Linux’

“Bob Sutor, IBM’s VP of open source, seemed to once again throw desktop Linux under the bus this week at LinuxCon,” was how Carla Schroder began her Linux Today post entitled, “Why IBM Won’t Do Desktop Linux.”

Citing Sutor’s vision of possible futures for the Linux desktop (No. 1: “It goes away”), Schroder wrote, “the very least level of support IBM and other hardware vendors can offer is to not ship Win-hardware.”

Then again, she added, “I’m not holding my breath.”

The moral is that “it is a mistake to wish for a savior,” Schroder concluded. “We have to do it ourselves.”

‘Why Not the US?’

Then there was news of IBM and Canonical partnering to launch cloud- and Linux-based netbook software in Africa.

Sean Michael Kerner of Internet News and Dana Blankenhorn over at ZDNet both picked right up on that little item, as did bloggers at Digg and elsewhere.

Bottom line: Many are wondering why there isn’t a similar offering for the U.S.

’10 Important Linux Developments’

“While I understand that Africa might be an easier entry point for the Linux notebook, the global recession is affecting every nation. The need for low cost, standards based solutions that IBM and Ubuntu are proposing for Africa is needed in every corner of the world,” Kerner wrote in his post entitled, “IBM markets Linux to Africa. Why not the U.S?”

Finally, IBM also trod on Linux turf lately with its post, “10 important Linux developments everyone should know about,” which hit Digg’s front Linux page soon thereafter.

All in all, it seemed to be much ado about IBM and Linux in recent days, so Linux Girl had to investigate.

‘Completely Out of Line’

“Carla Schroder is completely out of line with that trollish blog post,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. “IBM has put a lot of engineering resources into Linux, and that doesn’t come cheaply; complaining that IBM didn’t support Linux fully on its laptops or — worse yet — complaining that its former subsidiary, which it no longer controls, has backed off is a more than a bit unfair.

“Welcome to open source,” Mack added. “IBM has no responsibility to the Linux community beyond doing what IBM sees as furthering its own interests.”

Demands that IBM push desktop Linux “before it thinks it can do so without damaging its business are nonsensical,” Mack added, “and work against open source’s long-term survival. Not many companies are going to jump on board if they see us constantly kicking our friends.”

‘IBM Has Done More Than Any Other’

Indeed, “IBM has done more than any other organization to promote GNU/Linux to business,” blogger Robert Pogson agreed.

The company has likely helped businesses set up “more GNU/Linux desktops than any other organization,” he told LinuxInsider. “They have completed more than 15,000 GNU/Linux projects and helped business apply GNU/Linux where it pays.

“From the beginning, IBM has supported migrations on server and desktop,” he added. “They publish guides to help the process and to decide whether GNU/Linux is the best solution, things business needs to manage the technological and human risks of change.”

‘IBM Is the Superstar’

Lately, IBM has been pushing virtual desktops on thin clients, Pogson pointed out — “a fine solution to minimize hardware and software maintenance and acquisition costs for business, but too geeky for consumers. That is why they do not advertise GNU/Linux where consumers can see it.”

In short, in a single month, “IBM likely helps install more GNU/Linux desktops than most GNU/Linux evangelists do in a lifetime or lesser corporations do in a year,” he concluded. “IBM is the superstar of GNU/Linux migration, and they have supported GNU/Linux projects with more money and manpower than most.”

‘Nothing Happens Quickly at IBM’

Desktop Windows “was informed heavily by the demands of Microsoft’s customers; in the same way, Linux is infused with new functionality when someone is motivated and willing to pay for development, or has the resources and the time to implement them in-house,” Slashdot blogger drinkypoo told LinuxInsider.

“The NSA produced SELinux out of the need for a more secure operating system for their own use, while IBM, Novell, and Red Hat are well known for their contributions both to the kernel and to other tools,” he added. “IBM or any other vendor could be asked to provide a more credible Linux desktop by one of their major customers as soon as *yesterday*.”

As for Kerner’s post on the Africa project, that “can be best answered with the quote, ‘anything is easy if you don’t know what you’re talking about,'” Mack charged.

“He seems to think that large projects can be done by snapping your fingers and wishing it so,” Mack added. “I can tell you from having worked on projects where IBM was hired to audit that nothing ever happens quickly at IBM.”

‘There Is No Desktop Linux Market’

IBM markets Linux heavily on the server — not the desktop — in the United States because “there is no ‘desktop Linux market,'” Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, told LinuxInsider. “Instead, there are a number of ‘desktop Linux markets’ in different stages of development.”

In different parts of the world, “the situation is different,” Travers added: “Corporate desktops in emerging markets might find IBM services and desktop Linux to be a good combination.”

In the United States, however, “most conversions are inside jobs and supported in-house or with help from small, specialized consultancies,” Travers said. “IBM doesn’t see much of an opportunity here in the U.S. because it isn’t what IBM’s customers want. Really, I don’t see this changing for another few years.”

The US ‘Gotcha’

If users of the Linux netbooks sold to Africa will be using just the hardware and software provided — as will likely be the case — then Linux will prove a “great and trouble-free OS” in that situation, Slashdot blogger hairyfeet told LinuxInsider.

“The ‘gotcha’ is that the American market is a COMPLETELY different animal,” he added.

“Go to Walmart, or Best Buy, or Staples and write down all the models of gadgets on sale, and then go to some popular Linux forums, say Ubuntu forums, and see how much of the average stuff on the shelves is supported,” hairyfeet said. “You’ll find that nearly all the stuff on the shelves either doesn’t work at all in Linux, or will only work if you jump through flaming hoops of dozens of CLI commands that may or may not work depending on which chipset rev the device is, which of course is never labeled on the box.”

‘A Support Nightmare’

In other words, “IBM is looking at a support nightmare from hell if they sell Linux here,” he concluded. “It isn’t a slam on Linux, just market realities. In the USA, folks have too much Windows-centric stuff they want to run, whereas with Africa they can start clean.”

For Linux Girl’s part, it seems unwise to lash out at one of the few major corporations that has helped Linux gain traction over the years. Whether that’s been in the corporation or on the desktop doesn’t really matter, as long as it has helped FOSS — which it undeniably has.

There are enough challenges to be faced in the name of openness. Why bite one of the hands that feeds FOSS?


  • While I was with IBM Global services (Jan 2006 to Dec 2008) I used Desktop Linux almost exclusively. The Distro of (IBM) choice was Red Hat. It worked pretty well including VPN client. For the last half of my time with IBM I also had a Debian installation running perfectly using the VPN and other software (Notes Symphony etc.) The Ubuntu and Debian trees with the IBM specific software are supposed to only be used for internal research projects so you need to be a little circumspect in when you use them. They also require a little bit of a search on the intranet as they are not promoted. But they both work well. It looked like there was also a SuSe distribution available at one time with the IBM toolset but after the Microsoft partnership I could not stomach that. In any case I was using Rational Software Architect on both Red Hat and Debian as well as all the other IBM internal tools without any difficulty. There are a few tools our group sometimes had to use that did not have a Linux version available but for the work I did using them was very rare. (Some educational content for IBM classes seemed to only work in IE as one example.)

    I thought IBM was doing a great job getting ready to transition to Linux. The maturity level of the various tools is almost there. (For the small number of tools not on Linux those that are power users could run a virtual machine with W2K or XP or perhaps even Wine although the average user might be a little put off with that.)

    • Isn’t that the communities job and VARs to sell Linux. When I worked at IBM I wanted to use the IBM Linux Desktop with Symphony but it was lacking some core work tools but who’s job is it IBM’s or the Linux communities? I agree no one on the server hardware side pushes Linux more than IBM. On testing we installed 5 Linux servers to 1 windows server, that ratio represented real world install projections. Like the article said if you can get a match desktop to server then pushing buyer to a full Linux install is easy. I think we should blame Lenovo, they don’t want to sell Linux on their client machines in the US. I have a S10 running OpenSuSE, S9 comes with SuSE but is only available in Asia/Australia. Just bought a Lenovo G530 came with Vista wiped and installed Novell Linux Desktop. Maybe IBM/Lenovo should form a strategic Linux partnership.

  • There are many of us within IBM who would prefer to use a linux desktop. Unfortunately IBM has not based their Linux image on practical desktop distros. Also, their choice of AT&T for VPN is incredibly limiting (AT&T’s linux VPN is awful and does not work on most distros). Ironically, many of the other apps we need to use internally (like Notes) do work well. The VPN is an incredible bottleneck. IBM should work to make the AT&T VPN work with all distros and then should work on a good Netbook image. IBM should make Linux desktops available world wide but we should start by making them work well for our own employees. This would not be as difficult as it seems but is hamstrung by lack of vision, bad management, lack of budget and lack of comittment. If IBM could prove that the desktop could work within IBM there would be a good argument for providing services in this area for customers.

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