IBM’s ability to charge full-steam ahead with open source is good news

During my formative years in this business, I worked with many types of minicomputers and midrange systems: Honeywell, Data General, Digital Equipment, SGI, NCR, Perkin-Elmer and many more — even a Russian VAX clone which curiously ran operating systems from various vendors. However, it was not until

the dawn of the open systems era that my work involved me with IBM.

This occurred while working as CIO of a large trucking company, as a director in the Government of Canada (GoC) and as an independent consultant. To say that working closely with Big Blue was frustrating, sometimes even exasperating, would be an understatement. For example, IBM both contributed to the creation of the Open Software Foundation — which delayed the unification of Unix by several years — and also (in AIX) created the most un-Unix-like member of the Unix family, if only to make it look more like the other IBM operating systems, of which there were almost too many to count. Worse, there were more incompatibilities among the AIX variants running on IBM’s own mainframes, midrange systems and small servers than between AIX and the Unix versions from other vendors.

By the mid-1990s our firm was doing a good business in “”proprietary vendor extraction”” — helping major IT shops move to open systems when their incumbent proprietary vendor was actively trying to prevent them from doing so. Often that vendor was IBM. This situation was particularly vexing because the IBM RS/6000 midrange server product line, even when first introduced, was an excellent piece of work and in many ways stood head-and-shoulders above some of its peers. Its superscalar architecture was outstanding. What frustrated us was that IBM’s corporate and marketing attitude towards open systems in general, and multi-vendorism in particular, was, to say the least, frosty, and was considered flat-out obstructionist by many.

When teaching introductory courses on open systems, I used to recount the story of the Baldwin Locomotive Works, which for the century prior to 1950 was the largest steam locomotive builder in the world. When upstart Electro-Motive Diesel rolled out its FT freight diesel in 1939, it created the granddaddy of all open systems interfaces. It developed a multiple-unit electrical specification that permitted one engineer to control many locomotives from the lead unit and then published it, thereby permitting railroads with Fairbanks-Morse and Alco locomotives to intermix these units in a consist with those of EMD. This saved on engine crews and made mainline freight diesel operations practical, since a single diesel was puny compared to the biggest steam locos, but four together could blow away anything the steam-advocates could throw at it. Baldwin, fielding their own diesels, huffed that they were the leader, invented their own proprietary interface and attempted to force the railroads to adopt it. It didn’t work — railroads needed to inter-mix units, but Baldwin wouldn’t listen. As a result, what was one of the largest industrial companies in the U.S. in 1945 was dead by 1962.

I always argued that IBM could take a lesson from Baldwin. And maybe it has. Recently, it has become clear that open source spans not only the Unix and Linux operating systems, but also packages and applications. Working with a public sector client, I have been mightily impressed not only with the ability of new systems like the RS/6000 P-570 to host multiple and dynamically reconfigurable Linux and AIX logical partitions as well as to provide the ability to hard-wire and/or virtualize disk and I/O resources to partitions or among them. While midrange technology advances relentlessly, in my view the IBM P-series represents a significant commitment to helping clients migrate smoothly to open source. IBM also offers various Linux-optimized machines. What’s more, both in fostering a server acquisition project for this client and in evoking IBM’s wider collaboration with GoC on open source-related issues, I have found IBM goes the extra mile to help make good things happen. This is a significant — and welcome — change. Had Baldwin done likewise, your next Via Rail trip might well have been behind one of their locomotives.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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