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IBM Eyes Big Year for Linux on PowerPC

Few in the tech industry would disagree that the wealth of chip architecture support IBM offers its customers, whether for Intel's Itanium or AMD's Opteron, is the broadest in the business.

Now, it appears the systems vendor is gearing up to make a stronger push for its own POWER architecture.

The Armonk, N.Y. company's systems group, which makes servers, is slated to make a Linux on PowerPC announcement at a press briefing at LinuxWorld in New York City Wednesday.

IBM refused to comment but there are hints the company will extend the tendrils of its PowerPC chip architecture further into its BladeCenter, possibly spreading the architecture to the iSeries, pSeries and other server lines.

IBM is also expected to unveil a key win in the form of a new Common Criteria Evaluation Assurance Level certification for Linux. The Common Criteria is a standard for defining security technology, and Common Criteria EAL certification is vital to companies that want to sell to government and security conscious businesses.

Sources said IBM is likely moving up to EAL 3, which means its eServer family, including iSeries, xSeries, pSeries and zSeries, has been certified as secure. This means government businesses can purchase IBM machines, opening up a considerable world of opportunity for the company to extend its Linux tendrils for big contracts from the U.S. Department of Defense.

IBM already has one such credit to its name. In August, IBM Corp. and SuSe Linux AG certified SuSe Linux Enterprise Server 8 running on IBM's xSeries servers under the EAL2.

The PowerPC and blade news comes on the heels of a strong fourth quarter for IBM's Systems Group, which also reported $28.2 billion in revenue for 2003 and $4.9 billion for the fourth quarter.

IBM brought blade servers into the realm of 64-bit computing last year with its first blade server based on its PowerPC architecture. The eServer BladeCenter JS20 system employs PowerPC chips to offer customers an alternative to using Intel's Xeon processors.

At that time, Brian Connors, vice president of Linux on Power, said IBM planned to create additional BladeCenter options that will lead to further consolidation in the big server industry as the company continues to fill out its product line to handle various workloads.

Earlier this week, IBM announced new features for its next-generation DB2 Universal Database, code-named Stinger.

According to an IBM document, this includes support for IBM's 64-bit POWER architecture, which is geared for Linux clusters. Moreover, Stinger will also support version 2.6 of the Linux kernel, which will help IBM's database clusters scale higher and perform faster.

PowerPC chips already have placement in famous consumer products. The 64-bit IBM PowerPC 970 powers Apple's so-called "world's fastest personal computer," the G5 and the popular digital video recorder TiVO uses PowerPC 403GCX.

But the new Xbox and Sony Playstation gaming boxes are also expected to go to PowerPC chips. Clearly, IBM is paving a path in the consumer device space. The key question is: can IBM spread a similar gospel throughout its own product lines and into the enterprise where Itanium and Sun Microsystems' UltraSparc III are strong?

Adam Jollans, Linux Strategy Manager for IBM Software Group, refused to discuss Wednesday's announcements, but said in a recent interview that IBM is fully committed to expanding the breadth of Linux on POWER, both from low-end to high-end systems.

Jollans told internetnews.com one of the reasons 64-bit Linux on Power is so attractive is its compatibility with 32-bit systems and said IBM feels comfortable about its position versus Intel or Sun.

The ability of Linux on PowerPC systems to scale up and scale out is a key market driver for IBM to expand its PowerPC architecture, according to Redmonk Senior Analyst James Governor. Governor discussed how IBM is optimizing its Linux systems by bundling its infrastructure software, such as DB2, on its platforms.

"The whole idea with 64-bit is -- nothing without an application," Governor told internetnews.com. "IBM is very keen to get DB2 supported on Linux so IBM can help people tackle the problems of scaling up and scaling out because if you have a fat database that performs millions of transactions you'll want to scale out its performance."

Governor said he sees IBM infusing PowerPC throughout its product lines in the next year, noting that IBM's 64-bit PowerPC is mature and is primed for high-performance systems.

"Anybody who doesn't think the PowerPC is a platform is an architecture that IBM is not fully committed to bring to the industry better think again," Governor said. "IBM may support Itanium, but it is not going to cede the market to Intel."