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Monday, 06 April 2009 05:28

How IBM builds up its store of Linux knowledge

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Ask anyone in the IT industry if they could have predicted years ago that a company like IBM would come to be known as one of the biggest users of Linux, and it's doubtful if there would be a single answer in the positive.

When you think of the IBM of the past and bring hackers into the picture, the two do not seem to gel.

But for some years now, the ultimate American blue chip company has been concentrating on making Linux run on all its servers, storage and middleware.

It does so in its own inimitable, understated way. You won't find a lot of media coverage of IBM's Linux business; things happen quietly. IBM's version of Tux is indicative of this as well: its Linux logo sports a white shirt, blue coat and a bow-tie.

The amount of Linux knowledge within IBM is massive; it has its own Linux technology centre where more than 600 developers work. And it has its own way of fostering the growth of such knowledge within its portals.

Within the company there are what are called communities of practice, which focus on special interests, domains and disciplines.

Open source is one of them. It is one of the larger communities and right now 5086 people are part of it worldwide, according to Glenn Wightwick, director of the IBM Australia Development Laboratory.

One does not have to be working on open source within IBM to be a part of this community of practice; any IBM employee can join a community of his or her interest.

"The open source community of practice was set up in 2000; everyone who participates does so in addition to their day jobs," Wightwick says.

"The structure is defined by the community, and communication, i.e. newsletters, forums and the recorded lectures, are co-ordinated via two co-leaders. It is a flat structure and the co-leaders are volunteers. The individual defines the level of activity in which they wish to participate."

CONTINUED


Wightwick says that people can bring to the discussion forums problems of their own as well as those which they face in their company work. The extent to which they can share knowledge which helps them resolve problems in their personal projects is limited by the company's guidelines for participation in external projects.

"Through the size and richness of the network that exists, you can gain knowledge which you need," Wightwick says. "There is no explicit code of conduct apart from the guidelines that govern everything we do."

The communications that take place - newsletters, forums, and recorded lectures - are only for internal consumption. Wightwick said he could not be specific about topics that were discussed.

However, the community does have an indirect external impact. "Many people who are part of the Open Source CoP actively participate in external Linux and Open Source projects. By implication, there is a flow of information in both directions," says Wightwick.

There is no evaluation of the CoP. "We don't seek to directly measure the impact of the CoP. The value of collaboration and CoPs in IBM is inherently recognised and are very much part of our technical culture," says Wightwick.

"Everyone who participates gets value from them. The CoP is also very attractive to employees. People like to be able to share information and work collaboratively. The sheer size of the IBM network means that if someone needs expertise, very quickly you can find someone with the required expertise and knowledge, eg. deep technical issues within the kernel."

While most of the intra-CoP communications are electronic, there are some face-to-face encounters. Wightwick says such meetings take place is there is sufficient critical mass to warrant them.

Does this sharing of knowledge benefit those outside IBM?

"I would argue it does have an impact on what IBM does externally. Having a strong knowledge of Linux and Open Source within IBM means that we really understand the value of the external open source community," Wightwick says.

"Community members typically are sharing knowledge, experience and often acting as conduits to help others working on various open source products."

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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