10 Years of IBM Linux: Embracing Customer Choice

Q&A with IBM's Jonathan Prial

Involved with Linux since IBM's initial entry into the space more than 10 years ago, Jonathan Prial is now vice president of enablement for sales teams at IBM. Here, he talks with The IBM LinuxLine about IBM's early presence in the Linux market, how he sees Linux use evolving, and why it's important to be a student for life in the world of technology.

LinuxLine: What is the scope of your responsibility at IBM in your position as vice president of enablement?
Prial: I manage a small team and extended teams across the geographies and our software brands that focus on the training and skills of our software group sales force of over 15,000 professionals. We focus on their selling skills, their product and solution skills as well as their industry skills, and Linux is obviously part of that mainstream activity across the company.

LinuxLine: How did you first become involved with Linux and what was your role at that time?
Prial: In 1997, I was responsible for the marketing of IBM software on Windows NT. At that time, I was given the mission to work across software groups and build a marketing plan for our presence on Windows NT. We were working with all of the Software brands to showcase the kind of capabilities we delivered on Windows NT.  It was a very close parallel to what we did later with Linux.

My involvement with Linux was a natural evolution. It was at the end of 1998. As Linux began to emerge in importance, Robert LeBlanc, who was leading Strategy for IBM Software at that time, selected people from across the company, including myself, Dan Frye, and others, and assigned them to work on different aspects of IBM's involvement in the Linux market. When that small task force was created to help define IBM's launch into the Linux market, I was asked to lead the marketing strategy for IBM in the Linux space.

LinuxLine: What was the initial focus for IBM back then?
Prial: The most important thing to do was to bring a complete IBM Linux solution-hardware, software, and services-to market. We had what was then the IBM PC Company supporting Linux machines, Linux on z, services around Linux, and a very varied portfolio of software running on Linux. We had IBM's first major presence at LinuxWorld in 1999 and a consistent IBM story.

When we first became involved we really weren't sure what people were going to think of IBM in this space, but we made contributions to open source software, and have really played a major role in helping shape what the Linux market has become. We took the opportunity to "set the bar" for corporate participation.

LinuxLine: Did you see then how large an impact Linux would have?
Prial: What we knew back then was that Linux was a great way to drive home our cross-platform strategy. Whether it was Linux running on System z or Linux running on an Intel platform, it didn't matter. It was reinforcing that life wasn't only just a bunch of IBM platforms and Windows. We ran on HP-UX, we ran on Sun Solaris, we still do. The point is that Linux is part of an integrated IBM strategy. It was a very important differentiator for us. We were trying to strike the balance and we have done a great job on that.  IBM's software does well on all platforms, and runs where our customers need it to run.

LinuxLine: How has IBM's involvement with Linux evolved since then?
Prial: IBM contributes to the Linux community in several ways. We contribute to and use our global expertise to help shape standards-that is one part. A second way we are involved is by contributing technology and patents to the open community. And, a third way is by making sure that our software products run on Linux, which gives customers the opportunity to run their tried-and-true, best-of-business program on the newer platform where they may want to be experimenting with other technologies. We don't make it an either or. You are welcome to do both with IBM.

LinuxLine: What stands out as something that has surprised you the most over these past 10 years that have been so important for Linux?
Prial: It has not surprised me but it is very pleasing to see the work that that community has done and truly how robust Linux is. It is anything but a small, lightweight kind of server.

LinuxLine: Linux has seeped into so many aspects of enterprise computing.
Prial: When I was part of that first team working on IBM's launch into the Linux market, we went to the lab and said what would it take to get DB2, WebSphere, and other products  running on Linux, and the answer was, we are already there-we did it over the weekend-we liked it. That was how infused it was into the culture. In the U.S., at most every customer, there was a print server running on Linux in a closet that someone hadn't told their boss about. Linux to the technical community was pervasive before anyone even figured it out.  And, now Linux is actually quite pervasive in the business community, without anybody even worrying about it anymore. Similar to the technical community, it has also become very accepted to the business community.

LinuxLine: How widespread is the use of Linux within IBM?

Prial: We use Lotus Notes and Lotus Connections for our email and collaboration solutions, and Symphony, too.  We have teams using Linux desktops and I see more and more IBMers using MacBooks. Key is our consistent use of Lotus. Some of our teams have said that Linux is absolutely right for what they are doing and just like some of our customers, they are moving to 100% Linux environments. In Germany, for example, the IBM Software Group field technical professionals migrated 2 years ago to Linux.

LinuxLine: How do you see Linux use changing and growing now?
Prial: We will see more and more Linux on the desktop. The IBM Client for Smart Work provides users with an open and easy to use alternative to the Microsoft desktop. It allows users to reduce the costs of ownership while at the same time increasing productivity, and there are a variety of options for customers.

LinuxLine: Reflecting on IBM's relationship with the Linux community, how have both benefited?
Prial: Not to be too arrogant, but Linux became better because we embraced it and made significant technical contributions to it. And, it helps us be recognized as a vendor that is supportive of "open" technologies. As opposed to standing alone, IBM is an active participant in a number of communities and everybody benefits from that.  It is all about customer choice. It is all about avoiding vendor lock-in.  Our message of client value is independent of technology and provides maximum flexibility for our clients.

LinuxLine: What has been the effect of Linux for enterprise customers?
Prial: Linux on System z has been an incredibly cost-effective consolidation platform. And, if you look at our products such as WebSphere, you can run them in an environment where your data and processing and all that are the same box. If you are concerned about security, you run it all on the same physical system. You don't have things stored in multiple places, so it is not only cost-effective, but there is an operational benefit as well.

But, whether you are talking about System x, the Intel architecture, whether you are talking about AIX, or whether you are talking about the POWER Systems  architecture or System z, IBM's embrace of Linux on these platforms ends up all being about  customer choice. We have tried and true solutions that are available on all these platforms and we are there because our customers are there. Because our customers want to run Linux, we are there, fully supporting them in doing so.

LinuxLine: What's ahead?
Prial: From IBM's perspective we absolutely have to recognize that we are students for life, as illustrated by the evolution of Linux and the embrace of the new IBM Client for Smart Work. In the past (when IBM was in the PC business), I never bought anything but IBM PCs, but now I am learning a Mac. We are always learning something new. What I learned when I was writing 370 Assembler code in 1978 is not what I am doing now. The fact that we are students for life in this world of technology is the best and most interesting part about all we do for a living.