AS/400 Division Keeping an Eye on Linux

It’s one of the hottest buzzwords in the computing world today, at the vanguard of the open source movement, maybe even a threat to Microsoft’s desktop OS dominance.

We’re talking of course of Linux, the freeware flavor of Unix that can be downloaded from the Internet at no charge and configured to suit the user’s needs. Linux, named after its creator, Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds, runs on Intel-based machines and is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to Windows 9X and NT as both a desktop OS and a server OS for file, print and e-mail. It has grown from 10 users to an estimated 10 million users since Torvalds first developed it in 1991.

IBM recently threw its support behind Linux, signing an agreement with Linux distributor Red Hat Software (Research Triangle Park, N.C.) to offer Linux on Netfinity servers, PC 300 Commercial Desktops, IntelliStations and ThinkPads. Similar agreements were also made with other Linux vendors, including Caldera Systems Inc. (Orem, Utah), Pacific Hi-Tech Inc. (Oakland, Calif.) and SuSE Holding AG (Oakland, Calif.), all designed to pave the way for co-marketing, development, training and support initiatives that will help customers deploy Linux.

Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Computer Corp. and Silicon Graphics announced Linux support for their Intel-based systems earlier this year.

But is Linux for the AS/400? Not just yet, but IBM is watching the market very closely. At the present time, there are no plans to offer Linux – as an alternative to Windows NT – on the AS/400’s Integrated Netfinity Server.

“Clearly [Linux on the Integrated Netfinity Server] is something we’re not ruling out but at this time we don’t have plans to introduce it,” says Ian Jarman, AS/400 Server Consolidation marketing manager at IBM. “Linux is very much talked about and there’s a very clear case for supporting it on Intel platforms like the Netfinity server, but to take the next step and integrate it with the AS/400 is very much a different question and a different level of investment.

“We’re focused on providing integrated NT solutions at this time. The market conditions are such right now that we’re not changing that position.”

Jarman explains that IBM wants to maintain its leadership in NT integration since that’s what AS/400 customers want right now. While Linux may be generating some interest in the AS/400 community, there really isn’t much demand emerging for it yet, he says.

“There’s a very clear and defined marketplace and a very clear business case [for NT integration with the AS/400]. There’s no such clear case at this point for a Linux version of the Integrated Netfinity Server. We’re evaluating it and watching it carefully, but we need a clear case for making that investment. It takes more than interest and excitement in the marketplace.”

Jarman points out that no AS/400 connectivity vendors that he’s aware of support Linux clients at the present time. However, that could be changing. The same day Jarman spoke to MIDRANGE Systems earlier this month, Inc. (New York) – formerly Advanced Transition Technologies Inc. – announced Linux support for its ResQ!Net and ResQ!Net for IBM’s Host-on-Demand products, providing 5250 host connectivity from the AS/400 to Linux servers and workstations. IBM’s Host-on-Demand is a Java-based emulator for Linux, providing secure access to enterprise data and applications via a Web browser.

Rob Enderle, VP at the Santa Clara, Calif.-based consultancy Giga Information Group, says AS/400 shops could benefit from using Linux, particularly for Internet applications.

“Linux is strong in connecting to the Internet. That’s not where NT or the AS/400 for that matter are particularly strong,” Enderle says. “Customers could use a Linux box to host a Web front end to an AS/400-based back end. Up to now, that’s been a difficult kind of interface.”

Don Marti, co-founder of San Francisco-based Electric Lichen LLC – which he describes as the “first Linux marketing firm – and a Linux user since 1994, says Linux has the “best implementation of the standard Internet protocol (IP).”

In addition to that interoperability advantage, Marti says Linux also has advantages in quality and configurability over NT.

“When someone already has an AS/400, Linux makes an excellent complementary solution,” says Marti. “The problem with bringing NT into an AS/400 shop is the assumptions AS/400 managers make about software quality. IBM has an excellent reputation with the AS/400 for building systems that are responsive to business needs, not to marketing or checklists of features. AS/400 IS managers are used to that level of quality they get from a properly set-up AS/400. They drop an NT box into that mix, they’ll see that standard run down.”

Enderle doesn’t fault IBM for focusing its integration strategy on NT.

“NT was put into the AS/400 as a bridge between the Windows world and the AS/400 world. Linux doesn’t do that,” he says. “But if you want to bridge the Internet to the AS/400, then Linux is a good solution.”

Enderle notes that Linux is fast improving as hardware vendors and resellers line up to support it and packaged solutions become available.

“It’s better supported, it’s now nearly as stable as the AS/400, it has a much lower risk than it did just 30 days ago,” he says. “Linux allows you to go in and play with the source, it’s damn near free – you just pay for support. It has platform advantages and price advantages.”

But still he says it really isn’t catching on in the AS/400 world just yet.

“The AS/400 group by and large is not a technology-leading group. The platform doesn’t change a great deal over time. It’s one of the strongest known [quantities] in this space outside of mainframes while Linux is at the other end of the scale. It really isn’t new, but it’s the newest thing out there. So there’s not a tremendous amount of affinity for it yet in the AS/400 world.”

“Linux is a Unix derivative,” offers IBM’s Jarman. “We’re seeing much more interest in it in the RS/6000 world than for the AS/400.” Indeed, IBM announced plans early this month to port Linux to selected RS/6000 models.

But as Linux attracts more interest from hardware vendors and distributors, it is becoming easier to use and harder to ignore. So how can an AS/400 shop get started in Linux? Marti suggests IS managers ask around their departments first to see if anyone has played around with Linux on their own.

“It’s pretty rare for an IS manager to have a decent-sized staff where there’s no one who didn’t learn Linux at home,” he says.

No need to download a copy of the Linux OS from an FTP site, that’s only for someone with a strong Unix background, Marti says. Instead, he suggests taking advantage of the pre-installed, plug-in-and-go Linux solutions that are increasingly available from companies such as Red Hat Software and VA Research (San Jose, Calif.). And then?

“Find a small IS project where you can get something going and see the benefits of Linux,” Marti suggests. “One place we’ve seen a lot of success is in marketing – a documentation system, a Web site, mailing lists. Linux is a flexible, low-cost, high-quality solution that communicates well on the Internet.”

Enderle cautions that Linux is not the “end-all and be-all” and customers should know its limitations and use it where it works best, such as the Internet. For a distributed computing environment, NT is still a better solution today, he says.