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IBM’s open source advocate

Dec 23, 20024 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsIBMLinux

As director of IBM’s Linux Technology Center, Daniel Frye is the driving force behind IBM’s considerable open source efforts.

When Daniel Frye joined IBM’s supercomputer group in the early 1990s, the Linux operating system was barely a glint in the eye of Linus Torvalds, its creator. A decade later, Linux is now as much a part of IBM’s product arsenal as the ThinkPad and the mainframe, and Frye is the Linux guy. As director of IBM’s Linux Technology Center, he oversees Big Blue’s technology strategy for the open source operating system.

Advocating use of open source software wasn’t a natural for Frye. Upon first learning of Linux at a conference in 1997, Frye admits being a little dismissive about the operating system. At the conference, a research team created a concept for a next-generation supercomputer based on a cluster of low-cost, Intel-based machines that would run Linux, recounts Frye, who at the time was with an IBM group responsible for identifying computing trends. Frye was intrigued by the supercomputer concept, but didn’t get the team’s insistence that Linux would be the operating system.

“My first reaction was, an open source thing? C’mon, what’s that all about?” he says.

An analytical thinker

But his natural curiosity as a scientist made him want to know more. Frye was educated as a physicist, receiving a master’s degree in physics in 1982 and a doctorate in theoretical atomic physics in 1985, both from Johns Hopkins University. “I don’t use my atomic physics background every day,” he says, but notes that the critical and analytical thinking skills he’s acquired are important in predicting trends in computing technology.

Drawing on his skills as a researcher, Frye educated himself on Linux by working with customers, academics and other technologists. Ultimately, he co-wrote a strategy white paper outlining Linux’s benefits. The white paper set the tone for IBM’s position on open source in general and Linux in particular.

Soon after the white paper came out in 2000, IBM invested $1 billion to make Linux one of its core technologies. Since then, IBM has ported its entire line of servers – from mainframes to midsize and Intel-based machines as well as laptops, workstations and PCs – to Linux. And it has released Linux ports of its major enterprise software products, such as WebSphere, DB2 database and Lotus Notes/Domino. While the company does not release Linux revenue statistics, IBM says it has more than recovered the costs of moving its hardware and software products to Linux.

As IBM’s foremost proponent of Linux, Frye was the company’s only choice to head the Linux Technology Center, which was established formally in 1999.

A good open source citizen

Frye, it seems, was destined for IBM. “I did most of my graduate work on some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world,” including IBM machines, Frye says.

When it came to think about employment, Frye says he found IBM, with its stable of supercomputing engineers, a good fit. He came onboard to lead the RS/6000 SP team, bringing to bear his experience as a high-end user and helping to take IBM’s scalable Unix business from zero revenue to more than $1 billion in sales by 1998.

But directing the open source efforts of an industry dinosaur takes special care, Frye says. One of his earliest challenges was getting the open source community to accept IBM as a partner when the company began increasing its Linux efforts. It feared IBM would come in and change the way the open source community worked, and was worried IBM had a secret agenda, he says.

At first, Frye had developers observe open source community activity quietly. He gave them the go-ahead to jump in and participate actively in the process of open source development, which includes lively debate and taking controversial positions on how code should be written, once IBM had established credibility among the various groups that maintain Apache, Linux, Samba and other open source software.

Frye favors the hands-off management style needed for a job tied to the anticorporate leanings of the open source software movement (several hundred open source programmers work at the Linux Technology Center), and is proud of the relationship he’s forged with the developers. “We’ve established ourselves as pretty good open source citizens,” he says.

Scott Handy, director of IBM’s Linux Software Solutions, who has worked with Frye since 1999, seconds that opinion. “Dan understood very early on that a project can only be successful if it has the support of the community,” he says. “It’s his vision, knowledge and easy-going style that has helped shape IBM’s ongoing commitment to Linux.”