News feature: Is Linux the future for research?

HP this week joined forces with a number of scientific bodies around the globe to examine how the Linux operating system, running on HP's top servers, can serve as a key platform for research.

HP is looking for its Intel Itanium processor-based servers to play a big role in the scientific community, and researchers appear to think the company has something to contribute.

The Itanium is built around a new 64-bit architecture from Intel that provides servers with more horsepower for running software than current 32-bit chips.

Although Itanium chips are expensive now, some research institutions believe Intel's products will soon serve as a platform for less expensive high-end computing, as laws of supply and demand help Intel edge out its competitors on system costs, said Martin Fink, general manager for HP's Linux systems organisation.

HP and researchers are excited about the prospect of running the open-source Linux operating system on these powerful Itanium systems.

If they use Linux, researchers and developers can freely exchange ideas and discoveries about the software with a vast open-source community. Additionally, Linux carries a much lower price tag than many mainstream operating systems, making it a natural choice for research bodies. HP is partnering with the research groups to strengthen the performance of Linux on the new chips.

The group, formally known as the Gelato Federation, is made up of HP, the BioInformatics Institute in Singapore, Groupe ESIEE in France, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in the US, China's Tsinghua University, the University of Illinois, Australia's University of New South Wales and the University of Waterloo in Canada, Fink said.

The NCSA is doing research to strengthen Linux and make it more reliable for high-performance computing.

"We are in the research computing business, and part of our role is to push the edge and be more aggressive than a corporate organisation could afford to be," said Dan Reed, director of the NCSA. "We will be looking at various Linux issues and how we can help push it to the high end."

In addition, the Linux community can often solve problems for the researchers quicker than can vendors, said Gernot Heiser, associate professor of the University of New South Wales' school of computer science and engineering.

"There is more happening right now with Linux and people contributing to it," Heiser said. "This openness is attractive in a research environment, because you can either fix a problem yourself and then contribute it back for others, or you can get help from the community. In practical terms, you usually get problems fixed much faster."

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