When IBM Eats Its Own Dog Food, The Flavor Is Linux

By Dan Orzech

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Over the past several years, IBM made a strategic decision to move to Linux as its operating system of choice. All four of its server lines now run Linux, and the company says it has over 4,600 customers using Linux today.

So what does the world's largest computer company use in-house? More and more, it is running its operations on Linux. IBM estimates it is saving between $10 and $15 million a year by running Linux. And while the firm won't disclose how much of its overall IT operations are now Linux-based, the number of Linux servers at IBM is growing steadily.

Those servers are not just being used for file and print serving, either. IBM's newly-refurbished $2.5 billion chip plant in East Fishkill, New York, for example, runs on Linux. The semiconductor manufacturing equipment at the plant, which makes high performance, low power chips used in everything from routers to cell phones, is managed by IBM Intel-based xSeries servers running Linux.

Not a Doorstop
IBM is finding that using Linux internally provides it with many of the same benefits that it touts to its customers.

"You can run Linux on a less technically advanced computer than other operating systems," says Karen Smith, IBM's vice-president of Linux strategy. "As a result, you can use servers that in many instances would just be doorstops, because they're not powerful enough to run other operating systems."

IBM was able to recycle older xSeries servers when it shifted the application that monitors server performance for its worldwide Lotus Notes e-mail system, which supports more than 300,000 IBM employees worldwide, from Windows NT to Linux, according to Smith. The company now uses 75% fewer servers to handle the same workload.

IBM is not only using Linux on smaller servers. Nearly ten percent of IBM's customers who are using Linux are running it on mainframes, and IBM itself is using a zSeries mainframe running Linux to host its internal employee forums, or newsgroups. IBM employees worldwide use the system to discuss hundreds of different technical and business topics. Part of IBM's intranet, the system receives over 17 million hits per day.

IBM is also using Linux for the company's internal software distribution system, which distributes up-to-date software to PC desktops and laptops of IBM employees around the world. More than 130 Linux servers in 25 countries distribute over 16 Terabytes of software each month to IBM's internal end-users and PC support personnel.

Linux is also finding a home at IBM Global Services, which is incorporating it into the Web hosting systems it builds for customers. The open source operating system is part of the systems the company has created for several high profile IBM sponsored events, including Wimbledon, the Ryder Cup and the US Open. For the Wimbledon tennis tournament, a DB2 database running on Linux tracks the scores of each match, and then relays them to other servers to be posted on the tournament Web site.

In addition to high-profile uses like these, there are lots of small Linux servers throughout IBM running basic infrastructure tasks like print, file or Web servers. In that regard, says Smith, IBM is no different from many other companies. "The IT department needs a server for something," she says, "and they don't want to spend a lot of money, so Linux comes in under the radar screen. That's what's happened at many of our customers, and not surprisingly, that's what happened at IBM."