Linux upsets Unix home

Linux clusters born in the world of academia are sprouting legs and appear ready to march right into the enterprise, despite the growing pains facing the emerging technology.

Numerous universities, government labs, and researchers are linking hundreds of Linux servers in the hopes of reducing costs associated with high-performance computing tasks and the expensive servers that often go with them.

Although Linux does not scale well for all jobs, those tasks that can be divvied up into small pieces work well on these Beowulf clusters.

This early work has paved the way for IBM Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Oracle Corp., and a host of smaller players to develop more modest clusters than can run databases and other common business applications.

"The whole Oracle 9i RAC (real application clusters) environment feels a lot like where HPCC (high-performance computing clusters) was a year and a half or two years ago," said Randy Groves, Dell's chief technology officer . "There have been some key customers trying out deployments, and it will be natural for that to start snowballing this year."

Groves is not alone in his view that 2003 could see a rise in Linux cluster adoption. Linux is making its way down from the hands of researchers into a number of large verticals, including the life sciences and oil and gas sectors. Once a company has experience with a Linux cluster that conducts technical computing tasks, they are more open to the idea of extending the technology into other parts of their datacenter, said John Humphries, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass.

"What we are seeing is an extension of the technical computing market into the commercial space," Humphries said.

Dell and IBM are making it easier for customers to move to Linux clusters by offering preconfigured packages of particular server and software combinations. Both are using this model to extend their success in the HPCC market by offering Linux clusters to enterprises.

Picking a Linux cluster to run Oracle, for example, can come with many of the obvious benefits often tied to the Linux space. Customers can hook together a number of relatively powerful but low-cost Intel-based servers all running an inexpensive operating system. If a server fails or the company needs to expand its network, the price of adding new servers can be substantially lower than that of adding a new SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) Unix system, analysts say.

A long list of vendors will be working this year to make Linux clusters even more competitive. Oracle, IBM, Red Hat, and SuSE are all releasing code to the open-source community while pushing for higher end features in the Linux kernel. In addition, software makers Veritas and Polyserve are rolling out improved file systems and management tools for clusters. Even Sun Microsystems, a longtime Linux holdout, plans to make its Sun Cluster software available for Linux.

But running demanding business software on an immature operating system and on 32-bit processors still has its costs when compared to higher-end platforms offered by the Unix crowd.

Unix vendors have worked for years to make their operating systems scale well and stay up and running. In addition, they use 64-bit processors that can address far larger chunks of memory than their 32-bit counterparts.

IBM, for instance, is touting Linux clusters and argues that Unix servers and mainframes are better for running a database.

"We would say that there are a lot of attractive platforms on which to deploy a database," said Dave Turek, vice president of Linux clusters and grid solutions at IBM.

IBM has partnered with SteelEye, which makes high availability tools for business software on Linux, to help move more applications onto Linux clusters. SteelEye announced at LinuxWorld that it has signed up customers to use its LifeKeeper software along with SAP on IBM's Intel servers.

Some users are ready to start running a database on top of their Linux cluster. Derek Welch, chief technology officer for the Douglas County School System in Douglasville, Georgia , is supporting 1,800 users with a four-server Linux cluster from Dell. "There are lots of education organizations out there that are looking at Linux," Welch said.

Welch purchased four servers from Dell, each with four Xeon processors, and run Oracle 9i RAC on the systems. "This allowed us to support a high number of users at a relatively low cost," Welch said.

Nevertheless, analysts warn that Linux clusters will take time to catch on in corporate environments.

"You will see some early adoption of Oracle 9i RAC and DB2 Linux clusters for certain types of database applications," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata, in Nashua, N.H.

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