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The head of IBM's Linux business has predicted consolidation among distributors of the open source operating system - and named the handful of players Big Blue is backing for success in the forthcoming shake-out.

Steve Solazzo, IBM's vice president of Linux strategy, said that "the world doesn't need" the 150 plus Linux distribution firms currently in business and he predicted massive consolidation through mergers and acquisitions.

"Rather than working with every Linux distributor we prefer to have four preferred worldwide partners, and work with a number of firms that are strong in particular geographies," said Solazzo. "We can't support all the marketplace."

Speaking at the CeBit conference in Hangover, Germany, Solazzo said that IBM's four preferred distributors are SuSe, TurboLinux, Red Hat and Caldera and that its local partners include MadrakeSoft, which is strong in France as well as distributors who are strong in Latin America and China.

Distributors close to Big Blue are given an entry into IBM's accounts and the opportunity to sell services and supports that are vital for the business of distributors, many of whom have been hit particularly hard by the downturn of the US stock market.

The need to keep a select group of distributors afloat come what may is something IBM is obviously keen to support. Solazzo said IBM would "major on a few relationships so that those distributors will emerge stronger".

One of the main reasons IBM is so keen on Linux, according to Solazzo, is that the OS is popular in the Internet data centre environment where its own AIX operating system is not particularly strong.

It's also worth remembering here that IBM is putting a great deal into the open source community including file systems, printers drivers, systems management and SMP (Symmetric MultiProcessing) support and scalability technology.

Despite doing more to support Linux than any hardware manufacturer, the Linux community is far bigger than Big Blue. In fairness IBM does acknowledge the role application developers, systems integrators and resellers are playing in "expanding the franchise available to Linux" as Solazzo puts it.

What IBM is doing is majoring on distributors who provide the kinds of service and support that would make corporates more comfortable with buying applications, for example, its DB2 database software for a Linux server.

The snag in IBM's "preferred partner" strategy for distributors is that Big Blue might be perceived as taking a paternalistic attitude to the Linux market place and picking favourites that might alienate others in the open source community. ®

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