IBM's Steve Mills on security, thin clients

FRAMINGHAM (10/21/2003) - Steve Mills, senior vice president and group executive at IBM Corp., runs the company's US$13.6 billion software business. On Monday at IBM's headquarters in Armonk, N.Y., Mills met with a group of Computerworld editors to discuss how security is affecting corporate decisions and to detail growing user interest in thin clients as an alternative to the Microsoft desktop. Part 1 of the interview is already online. The following are excerpts from Part 2.

There was a recent report, posted by the Computer & Communications Industry Association (an anti-Microsoft organization), that said Microsoft's dominance on the desktop was a big security threat (see story). How are concerns about security affecting customer demand and customer choices on infrastructure and software?

This is something that's going to be fascinating to watch over the course of the next year or so. The accumulated effect of virus attacks and worms (has) brought about a lot of anxiety among businesses around the world on the porous nature of their environment and the cost associated with remediating these things when they occur. Microsoft, for reasons ... of their technology, which was never designed for this type of interconnected, public-facing Internet environment, combined with the fact that they are an obvious target, has raised all these concerns. Businesses are asking the question, What should we do about this? What kinds of remedies? There are no perfect answers. Many of the answers are procedural in nature, and some are technological.

For example, from a technical standpoint, if you have Unix systems facing the public Internet, you have the ability to dynamically change those environments on the fly. The symbolic referencing structures within the Unix environment make that environment more flexible in terms of being able to make changes to it, to block and prevent things coming in. Businesses that have Unix systems facing the public Internet are somewhat better off then those that have Windows server systems.

You don't think it's dramatically different?

I think it is dramatically different in the context of manageability and the ability to, on an emergency basis, update all of your servers on the fly to prevent certain things from intruding into your environment. It is a big deal. We do it in IBM. We don't have Windows systems facing the public Internet; we have Unix systems.

So is improving security just a matter of putting in better administrative controls, or is your safest bet to have a heterogeneous environment?

I don't think that the heterogeneity per se is a requirement. The systems-characteristics issues do play a role in this. I can be entirely Unix-based and have a more flexible capability to patch and fix and update and correct security flaws than if I have a Windows-based environment.The issue of heterogeneity, as depicted in what's been written recently, I don't believe is actually correct. The root-cause problems are the massive number of security flaws and holes in Windows, combined with the Windows design point, which is monolithic and inflexible, which leads to an inability to make on-the-fly corrections.

Is IBM doing anything at all to offer alternatives to the Windows desktop?

Thin clients, yes -- we have a big portal initiative. We recommend to customers every day that they try to move the maximum number of users in their organization to a portal-based environment -- business workers, branch people, clerical people, plant-floor people. How many of your people need Office? The lowest number I've ever heard for thick client support is US$5,000 per user per year -- $5,000 to $12,000 (per year in support cost), that's kind of the spectrum. The big cost savings is not in getting off Microsoft Office and going to StarOffice; the big cost savings is, Can I get to a thin client? The cost of the client is tied up in the labor, not in the cost of the client box or the software that runs on it.

Where do you see your portal going in the next year or two?

The WebSphere portal product has been growing 50% compounded and continues to do so. So there is great popularity around this notion of portalizing application interfaces in order to improve user productivity.

Do you see an emergence of a new assault on the Microsoft desktop?

The browser-based approach, the portal-based approach, is the direction we see lots of businesses wanting to go in. There is anxiety over what they are spending on Office and how big will this desktop environment become.

This interview was conducted by Computerworld's Patrick Thibodeau, Tommy Peterson, Don Tennant and Maryfran Johnson.

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