Thirteen Months That Changed IBM

By Dan Frye

In 1998, Linux had emerged as the operating system for start-ups, early e-businesses, and edge servers. But Linux, notable for its shared, open-source approach to software, had not yet made an impact on the enterprise market, where the arrival of hybrid cloud and AI were still more than a decade away.

IBM, though, recognized the operating system’s potential and started our Linux initiative in September 1998. The 13 months that followed not only changed IBM, but laid the foundation for the digital transformation that today enables our clients to reimagine their businesses in the world of hybrid cloud and AI.

Our initial strategy team included experts from IBM’s x86 Intel-based server, IBM Software and technical services businesses. The IBM s/390—the precursor to IBM Z mainframes—was not included because enterprise IT existed in a different universe. The team needed to determine whether Linux and open source were reliable, secure and robust enough for our clients, for IBM, and for the industry.

We established an Open Source Program Office to coordinate activity and began attending Linux conferences to learn more about Linux and open source. At the end of those whirlwind 13 months, we had our answer: Linux had legs. We developed an IBM marketplace strategy for Linux and open source, creating an IBM Linux Technology Center to help make Linux enterprise ready.

Meanwhile, a cadre of programmers in the skunkworks of IBM Böblingen, in Germany, had begun porting Linux to the IBM mainframe “just for fun.” It only took them a weekend to get the basics running. And with local management support, the project took off. Word spread quickly across IBM.

Linux on s/390 enters the mainstream  

By the time Spring Strategy time rolled around in 1999, Enterprise Systems Group General Manager William Zeitler had enough information for a final chart of his presentation to then-CEO Lou Gerstner: “We also have Linux on s/390,” Zeitler said.

“That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard,” said Gerstner, who then paused for reflection and added “Or maybe not?”

The idea needed careful consideration, so we set up a team to consider whether to officially port Linux to s/390. We knew that supporting Linux on the mainframe could help bring the s/390 into the internet age. But would doing so cannibalize the existing mainframe business? Fortunately, we had done our homework by learning from a wide group of open source leaders to understand how best to approach involvement in open source. In September 1999, the IBM corporate executives had agreed.  And IBM launched Linux on s/390 the following Spring, in May 2000.

IBM was the first enterprise IT company to go all-in on Linux. But we did so as members of the Linux community. We helped found the Open Source Development Labs, and then took this to the next level by helping it merge with the Free Standards Group to form the Linux Foundation. As a result, we have been able to leverage our unique skills to help blaze the pathway to enterprise Linux and then the open source hybrid cloud and its enablement of AI.

What started in the late 1990s with a handful of strategists and programmers has positioned IBM—now, in partnership with Red Hat—as the global leader in hybrid cloud. I am proud to have played a part in shaping the present and future of enterprise IT. I can’t wait to see where Linux and IBM Z take us next!




Dan Frye was part of the original IBM Linux strategy team, and went on to lead the IBM Linux Technology Center for 15 years. He retired from IBM in 2016.






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