Come See the Softer Side of Linux?

  • Written By: R. Krause
  • Published: February 21 2000

Event Summary

1/31/200 [Inter@ctive Week] - Three hardware manufacturers, trying to upgrade the scalability and manageability of Linux servers, announced major Linux server initiatives at LinuxWorld in New York.

VA Linux Systems:

VA Cluster Manager VA Linux Systems (Sunnyvale, Calif.) demonstrated its VA Cluster Manager (VACM), pronounced "vacuum" by its development team. VACM, which will go into its beta test phase this week, is expected to become generally available sometime in the second quarter. VACM can be used either for managing large clusters of Linux servers or for general-purpose, remote systems management of scattered Linux servers within an organization, according to San Mehat, VACM project manager.

"Organizations are getting large numbers of Linux servers, 50 to 1,000 nodes," Mehat said. "It's a nightmare to know 24 hours a day, seven days a week, whether one of the machines is failing." The remote manager has several options for managing remote machines, including writing scripts that are entered via command line in VACM, or through the graphical user interface provided with VACM. VACM makes use of Intel Intelligent Platform Interface (IPI) for collecting data from the Linux machines and offers a set of tools for using that data. Data collected can include the machine temperature, voltage levels, memory errors and level of processor usage. VACM can monitor system event logs, watching for potential problems, according to Mehat.

"We can communicate with the processor out of band," Mehat said -- meaning the machine can be locked up with an application fault, and a VACM-based manager can restart it without needing to send a technician to reboot it on the premises.

SGI - 70 percent improved performance:

SGI is introducing Internet Server based on its 1200 "plain vanilla" Intel-based server series, with the Red Hat 6.1Linux operating system and an enhanced version of the Apache Web server that can offer a 70 percent performance improvement, said Greg Estes, vice president of broadband and Internet products.

The SGI offering is intended "to be easier to use out of the box" for Internet businesses, Estes said. In addition to Linux and Apache, Internet Server has other open source software and tools bundled on the server, plus an intrusion detection system from TripWire. Internet server is packaged in a 3.5-inch package, suitable for rackmount. Internet Server comes with Advanced Cluster Environment, introduced recently, for managing groups of the Linux servers. It provides the software interconnection services, system monitoring, job scheduling and fail-over services.

A single node of Internet Server is priced at $4,600. A 32-processor cluster of 16 two-way 1200 servers with Advanced Cluster Environment is $125,000, said Courtney Carr, product line manager.

Penguin Computing launched I-Node:

Penguin Computing, a small San Francisco systems integrator based on Red Hat Linux, launched its bid for a distinct product line by offering an Internet server, an I-Node, that can also be clustered with other Linux servers.

The I-Node is based on Resonate's local area network-based traffic management software, sold separately as Central Dispatch. Penguin is offering one or two rack-mounted server versions, loaded with the clustering software. The system would be priced at $8,000, said Sam Ockman, Penguin president. The I-Node is different from the Beowulf experimental Linux cluster at Los Alamos National Labs and other locations. Beowulf is a tightly coupled cluster, with a high-speed interconnect for its nodes. I-Node is designed to run as a loosely coupled set of servers in a business environment, said Mike Tar, senior product manager.

One I-Node acts as the primary scheduler for a cluster on an Internet Protocol network. It monitors activities on other nodes and routes traffic to them. In the event of a node failure, it reroutes work in progress to other nodes.

The goal, Ockman said, "was to build the most reliable Linux system."

Market Impact

The Linux Gang (TLG) continues to take the game to Microsoft. Assuming all these products work as well in practice as in theory, Linux will now have better clustering than Windows NT, reliability equal to or better than NT, and will get closer to the mini-Grail of friendlier interface. (We believe Windows will still hold the edge in GUI friendliness.) All these developments will cause the Linux market growth to increase; at least until market consolidation begins.

In addition to the other benefits, a performance boost will help TLG fight the Microsoft FUD factor regarding which OS performs better. One caveat is that the "70 per cent performance improvement" described by SGI provides no clue as to what performance is being measured. Is it "requests per second" for caching-focused servers? We expect NT's networking capabilities still to exceed those of Linux.

These announcements still do not address the issue of increasing the quantity of mainstream applications available for Linux - perhaps the greatest barrier to desktop success. We understand that all the vendors prefer to focus on the higher-margin server market. However, we think it shortsighted for TLG to keep their focus narrow, especially if they believe that the Application Service Provider market will grow significantly over the next two years. Corel's recent announcement of WordPerfect Office Suite for Linux will help spread desktop apps further.

User Recommendations

As always, users committed to Windows only or Solaris only will have little interest in these announcements. However, those users wanting to (or willing to) build up Linux server capability will find more reasons to consider it. Linux vendors are trying to eliminate NT's competitive advantages (e.g., GUI friendliness), while at the same time strengthening Linux's existing advantages (e.g., reliability).

As with any new technology or infrastructure improvement, users are cautioned to "try before buy". This translates to having the vendor absorb the risk of a changeover. All the whizzy technology improvements don't mean much if they kill your infrastructure. Toward that end, new/potential Linux users should try to contract for a trial period, with the Linux systems acting as a "shadow" infrastructure, before making any wholesale change.

An alternative strategy is to wait 1-2 years until the Linux shakeout/consolidation occurs, and then work with a vendor that has absorbed key technology from one or more of the "also rans". Consolidation in some areas has already started (witness the recent purchase of by VA Linux), we expect it to continue and increase. Obviously, consolidation does not mean good technology goes away, only that companies do.

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