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Linux Storms the Enterprise

Linux adds important server clustering and management features

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Tech InsiderAt the National Center for Macromolecular Imaging at Baylor College of Medicine, scientists are reconstructing molecular configurations of viruses and developing 3-D models of their structures.

Instead of using traditional supercomputers that can cost millions of dollars, Baylor, located in Houston, is using high-end Linux-based server clusters that are much less expensive, yet just as effective. While Linux-based servers are most often used to serve up Web pages, the open source operating system is also making inroads on the high-end.

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Indeed, Linux is being tailored to fill many needs in the enterprise and shouldn't be counted out when you're looking for a one-size-fits-all operating system capable of handling multiple enterprise applications, observers say.

According to IDC, a Framingham, Mass., research firm, commercial Linux software was the fastest-growing server operating system in the last 12 months, and should continue to be the fastest-growing operating system through 2003.

Helping to spur that growth, is, of course, the popularity of Apache, an open source Web server that is commonly coupled with the Linux operating system to provide an inexpensive way for companies to create a Web site.

"The servers with Apache are excellently executed - they don't stop; they have a very light footprint. From a competitive standpoint, even Windows 2000 Server, those are heavy programs - memory and CPU intensive, while the Linux approach with Apache is to keep it light and keep it quick," says John Dunkle, president of Workgroup Strategic Systems in Portsmouth, N.H.

At Baylor College of Medicine, Linux was selected as the operating system of choice because of its scalability and price/performance advantages. The 3-D images yielded by the 32-processor cluster allow researchers to view the viruses like pieces in a puzzle. By studying these pieces, scientists hope to be able to take them apart and destroy them, says physicist Steve Ludtke.

"We already have a 32-processor SGI supercomputer purchased three or four years ago that cost roughly $2 million," Ludtke says. "We purchased the 32-way system from Linux NetworX for about $100,000, and it has twice the performance." He says that because so much time has elapsed, the price comparison isn't entirely apples to apples, but says a similar system from SGI would still cost $800,000 to $900,000 now.

"The generic hardware is so much cheaper. But we use Linux not just because it's cheaper, but [also] because it has other advantages - it's a multiuser operating system and most scientific software is designed to run on Unix," he says.

Clustering options

Linux NetworX isn't the only company making hay on Linux clustering and its ability to function well as a server operating system.

  • Mission Critical Linux offers a high-availability cluster product called Convolo Cluster. Convolo Cluster was developed using Kimberlite cluster technology pioneered by Mission Critical Linux. The company qualifies its software on IBM and Compaq systems, as well as Linux distributions TurboLinux, VA Linux, SuSE, Caldera, Mandrake, Debian and Red Hat.

  • TurboLinux also has a clustering product called TurboCluster, which allows network managers to cluster servers running Sun Solaris, Windows NT or Linux. It features dynamic load balancing, service monitoring, automatic IP failover and a set of management tools.

  • And earlier this month, VA Linux Systems announced VACM 2.0, the latest release of its VA Cluster Manager software. VACM is an open source software tool designed to allow network managers to remotely monitor and manage large clusters of hundreds of servers, whether they are all located in a central data center, or scattered across the world.

VACM's features include monitoring tools that alert system administrators to potential problems by monitoring the status of each server in a cluster. The software also has the ability to allow network managers to reset individual servers remotely and contrindividual nodes via a serial console redirect, which allows reconfiguration of a system's BIOS over the network.

Observers say that as more Linux-based server clusters are put in place - particularly to support e-commerce and Web sites at application service providers and ISPs that host them for enterprise customers - the business of managing them will also become more important.

"People who tend to use Linux for a Web environment tend to use hundreds - maybe even thousands of servers - and you have to be able to manage them,'' says Bill Claybrook, an analyst at the Aberdeen Group in Boston.

64-bit Linux

For most end users, even those with large enterprise networks, 64-bit servers and workstations won't be mainstream for a few years, but for network managers with mission-critical applications, planning for them should start now.

There are some 64-bit Linux applications, and Linux also runs on Alpha, PowerPC and SPARC 64-bit processors, according to IDC's Dan Kusnetzky.

Start-ups and Linux-centric companies aren't the only ones opening the doors for Linux on the high-end. Earlier this summer, Intel and HP teamed to roll out a free developer's kit designed to give enterprise users a path to 64-bit computing running Linux on Intel-based systems.

The IA-64 Linux Simulator allows developers to use IA-32 systems, such as Pentium III systems, to emulate the functionality of a 64-bit Linux environment running on Intel Itanium processor systems. The kit also contains documentation and links to software libraries created by Intel.

The kit will allow Linux developers to create, test, debug and run 64-bit applications designed for Intel's Itanium processor, which is due out later this year. HP says it will deliver Itanium processor-based servers and workstations that will support Linux.

Staunch Linux supporter IBM earlier this month unveiled the eServer zSeries 900, a mainframe aimed at

e-business. IBM also introduced a new 64-bit operating system, z/OS. The tie to Linux is many Linux applications will run on the eServer zSeries 900, opening up the servers to Linux programmers with little traditional mainframe training, according to IBM.

Rogue Wave Software and Rational Software are among the software companies announcing specific Linux products for the z900.

The anti-Microsoft

Most major hardware vendors have jumped on the Intel bandwagon, but not all have done so with total enthusiasm. "You have most of the major OEMs, including Intel, with some paranoia supporting Linux," Workgroup Strategies Dunkle says. "But none of the major OEMs want to invite the wrath of Microsoft by becoming Linux evangelists either."

Bill Claybrook, an analyst with the Aberdeen Group in Boston, agrees that Linux is seen as the Microsoft alternative. "Linux has a reputation of being very reliable - it rarely goes down. Being free has something to do with its success, but also the fact that there is a huge interest from people and large companies because they see in it an alternative to Windows 2000 and NT. It's a product and nobody owns it, so it's available for everyone to use it," Claybrook says.

Related links

Contact Senior Editor April Jacobs

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