What you don’t know about IBM

Dr Daniel Frye, VP Open Systems Development, IBM gave a talk on “IBM’s Decade of Participation in Open Source Software” at Rensselaer a few weeks back. Dr Frye spoke at length about how IBM setup the Linux Technology Center (LTC) in 1999, and how the unconventional investment in Open Source Technology had started paying off from the first year itself.

Some of my students who attended the talk quizzed Dr Frye on how he was able to convince Senior Management, after all, wasn’t this unlike anything IBM had done before? What Dr Frye revealed was quite unlike the IBM they had read about. It took only one presentation to Senior Management to get approval. The presentation explained how the Linux Model worked, what the market looked like, and IBM’s opportunity to disrupt the competition. It turned out that the developers loved the idea too, only middle management felt threatened. Of course, perceptions have changed over time.

Dr Frye enjoyed highlighting IBM’s strategy on Linux as akin to “scratching your own itch” a phrase he borrows from Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral & the Bazaar. Since Linux communities have their own distinct culture, IBM Developers sign-up on a community and remain silent observers for months together before making any contribution. In such forums, credibility comes with writing good code, and instead of pushing their agenda, IBMers took pains in reviewing others code, pointing out defects, or simply figuring out other ways to make themselves useful. The experience was all about taking small measured steps, developing a reputation and building trust. Often IBM chose to work with existing communities rather than create their own, though they did successfully start a dozen communities, Eclipse being one of them.


IBM’s revenues from Open Source Software products are several times their present $100 million investment. So how does the firm use open source software? IBM has been active in making Open Source find its place at the heart of the enterprise. At IBM, Open Source is used to:

• Run their business
• Operate their hardware
• Its in their software
• As part of service engagements
• As an R&D collaboration vehicle
• As a source of innovation
• Influences the direction of the IT industry
• As a competitive tool
• As a means to create a level playing field
• As a vehicle to enter new markets

Of the $1.5-2 billion invested in improving Linux every year, IBM spends less than a tenth. Among the other firms with significant investments in improving Linux include HPC, Intel, Novell, Oracle, Renesas, MIPS, NetApp, NTT, Sony, Astaro, Monta Vista and SGI. Evidently, leverage happens when others share that very same itch.

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