IBM Open Source Analyst Conference: Day 1

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Twenty years from now, when MBA types look back on the rise of open source software and ponder retrospectively its impact on the technology industry, I’d be willing to be a tidy sum that IBM will be one of the first and most important case studies they read. Thousands of pages of papers will one day be written on the topic, I’m sure, by earnest future business leaders eager to unleash upon the world their unique perspective on the paradox that is IBM and open source software.

I say paradox not because IBM has a checkered reputation within the variety of open source communities – much to the chagrin of some of its competitors, IBM can seemingly do no wrong with the open source world in general [1] – but because open source is at once risk and opportunity, reward and threat for Big Blue. While Linux drives big time revenue for software on top of it and services around it, a variety of their core, high margin software businesses are in the process of having their viable markets compressed by free and open source alternatives. Thus, where one opportunity closes, another is created. And vice versa. The decision to embrace open source that seems like such a logical step in one product division is viewed with horrow in the one next to it. And so on.

Open source then can be seen to represent a kind of meta-Innovator’s Dilemma for IBM; it threatens much of the software innovation (not to mention margin) they’ve driven over the years, but also offers them a transition opportunity in multiple markets. To their credit, IBM has been more opportunistic then reactionary when it comes to the business of open source. The implications and responses to open source are not the same market to market, many of the lessons are consistent. Open source is embraced sporadically but strategically, and carefully slotted in along side of what they might term their “private source” portfolio. They’ve learned (often painfully) how to participate in existing communities (e.g. Apache & Linux), as well as begin their own (e.g. Eclipse & Power.org), picking up best practices along the way from each effort.

In any event, its events like today’s that provide a facinating glimpse into the way one of the world’s largest software companies is at once embracing and defending against open source. A couple of tidbits from today’s sessions:

  1. Scott Handy:
    IBM’s VP of WW Linux and Open Source opened the afternoon with a candid discussion of some of the realities of open source as it pertains to IBM:

    • Open source to IBM != just Linux; it’s a community, and there was heavy emphasis on Apache, Eclipse, etc investments that IBM’s made alongside its Linux contributions
    • Roadmaps and future development in open source is uncertain, and needs to be
    • Community is a key determining factor in the success or failure of a given project
  2. Bob Sutor:
    Bob reprised his post here, asking for – among other things – more creative open source business models, better understanding of the distinctions between open source (e.g. OO.o) and an open standard (e.g. ODF), more traction for open source with industry verticals, and continued momentum and further wins for the ODF. On the latter point, he revisited the Massachusetts case history and hinted that IBM had been receiving a fair number of calls on the ODF topic from state and local governments.

  3. Jeff Smith:
    Jeff presented on some of the economic opportunities around open source, and explained how open source fit within their overall software portfolio. I asked him about the lack of emphasis on open source’s ability to destablize competitors and/or enhance the monetary opportunity in front of other IBM offerings, and while he acknowledged its ability in that regard chose to focus instead on customer benefits, etc.

  4. Breakout 1 – Open Source Communities:
    With representation from WebSphere CE, Aperi, Rational, and Open Source marketing, we had an interesting discussion on the nature of – and differences between – open source communities. Apache and Eclipse figured heavily in this particular session, as IBM’s participation in both parties gave them a viewpoint into how they compared, structurally, culturally and governance-wise. The question of IBM leading communities was raised, and my opinion was that when IBM chooses to try and forcefully lead a community, it’s a tremendous impediment or drag on participation (e.g. Eclipse, Geronimo). We also discussed the trends in community based development (Xgl, etc), and I asked semi-rhetorically whether open source communities can become, over time, too large for their own good.

  5. Breakout 2 – Open Source & Developers:
    This one was pretty lively, as anyone who follows this space might have expected. On the subject of dynamic languages and the viability of the LAMP stack, I’m obviously a confirmed believer, so when discussions turned in that direction I emphasized their importance. One question I had was why the DB2 free version is not made available in some of the Linux distros package management systems (e.g. apt-get, Portage, yum, etc). One point well emphasized was that that product may well offer capabilities that are currently unmatched in the open source realm, specifically in the area of XML handling. I strongly disagreed with notions that either a.) LAMP can’t scale, and b.) that LAMP can only scale for a handful of “Jedi-level” developers.

  6. Rod Smith:
    The last speaker of the day – the Emerging Technologies group’s Rod Smith – walked us through a quick backgrounder on Ajax (apparently the second most requested “emerging” technology, after SOA, within enterprises), then had Adam Peller (who’s now a Dojo committer, interestingly) demo the newly minted Open Ajax (apparently it’s popular, b/c I haven’t been able to download it yet) technologies working within Eclipse. As always, Rod’s an excellent leading indicator of where IBM is headed. My question in this session concerned just how far the Dojo, Open Rico and Zimbra toolkits went Ajax-wise. Answer? Just short of XMLHTTPRequest, so not really extending into the back end.

Following that, I chatted with a bunch of IBMers (and my colleague) over cocktails and dinner, including Adam Jollans, Amy Loomis, Diane Flis, Jeff Smith, Rod Smith, and Sarita Torres. Good day 1, and thanks to the IBMers for starting in the afternoon – much appreciated.

[1] This, despite being absolutely unrepentent about their financial motivations.


  1. How long do you think it will take for BEA and Oracle to catch up to IBM thinking?

  2. IBM has been absolutely brilliant in their participation within the open source community. You said that “IBM can seemingly do no wrong with the open source world in general … despite being absolutely unrepentent about their financial motivations.” I would take a slightly stronger stance to say that IBM has been so successful within open source communities partly because they have been so upfront about their financial motivations. The open source community values honesty and transparency, and by not hiding their motivations, people have a better understanding of why IBM takes certain actions. IBM’s large contributions (in code, developers, and more) have also made them popular with open source communities. More companies should learn from IBM’s successes.

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  4. Very nice write up – glad to see you enjoyed the event. A few of the sessions definitely brought out some lively discussion.

    I meant to introduce myself at the event but our paths seemed to miss each other – Maybe next time.

    And James… all I can say is some fear open source and others thrive on it. Some also think it’s all just about free/cheap SW… others think of it as innovation.

    Ultimately it starts with executive leadership:


  5. James: it’s interesting, and i think Mike (another smart Gentoo user 😉 articulates this well – it really comes down to culture. every group or division w/in IBM may not get ‘open source’ per se – i’ve been really pushing back on those that relegate it to a mere “on ramp” role – but from corporate on down it has enough broad based support to be sustainable.

    Dawn: excellent point, although i would argue that that hasn’t always been the case. a few years ago, for example, the concept of making money off open source was far more controversial than it is today. what’s viewed as reasonable today was anathema several years ago, so i think to some extent it is “in spite of.”

    Mike: sorry we missed you, i’m sure we’ll catch up at some point in the near future.

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