Clustering Software Takes Linux in New Direction

The performance clustering software and services announced today by Linux vendor TurboLinux Inc. and a cabal of partners including Unix vendor SCO Inc. takes the Linux market in an unusual and somewhat risky direction, analysts said.

Brisbane, Calif.-based TurboLinux released its clustering software, which can combine and manage the power of multiple servers for high-performance e-mail or Web serving, at ISPCon in SanJose. The software was beta-tested by hundreds of users including FDX Corp. of Memphis. FDX has acknowledged its role as a tester but hasn't commented on how the software performed or how it might use Linux clusters.

Hoping to vault TurboCluster Server into such large corporate accounts as well as Internet service providers, TurboLinux lined up partners including Santa Cruz, Calif.-based SCO to offer consulting services for customers;San Francisco-based LinuxCare Inc. for technology support; Carson City, Nev.-based Cubix Corp. to provide server hardware; Compaq Computer Corp. to provide developers with test platforms for the clustering system; and Giganet Inc. of Concord, Mass., for ``VI'' software that allows the cluster nodes to communicate with minimal overhead on the processors.

TurboLinux's release is about six to eight months ahead of its competitors, said analyst George Weiss of the Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group Inc. But what really stands out about TurboLinux's approach to the market is its effort to provide high-end software that alters the Linux operating system itself. Most Linux vendors such as Red Hat Software Inc. of Research Triangle Park, N.C., have sought to stake their claim based on business considerations such as service and support, Weiss said.

The significance to Linux users: TurboLinux's approach could put the compatibility of the different brands or "distributions'' of Linux at risk, Weiss said. Linux vendors have generally tried to avoid producing incompatible versions like commercial Unix vendors have, but the effort to improve the performance of Linux clusters has brought TurboLinux to the point of changing the Linux kernel, which is governed by the public domain. If TurboLinux isn't careful, its strategy of serving a market by improving on core Linux technology could produce a "forked'' version of Linux, Weiss said. If it avoids that pitfall, Weiss said, TurboLinux's gamble that users want Linux to scale to Unix-like heights of performance could succeed. "They have a shot at it,'' Weiss predicted.

Analyst Tony Iams of D.H.Brown &Associates of Port Chester, N.Y., said that if Linux creator Linus Torvalds didn't decide to incorporate TurboLinux's changes into the next release of the Linux kernel, then there would be a fork. However, he added that Torvalds should take TurboLinux's changes seriously, because high-availability clustering has been a major weakness of Linux. There is precedent for Torvalds quickly deciding to incorporate changes to the kernel produced by commercial developers, Iams said. Engineers at Siemens and Linux distributor SuSE Inc. provided a 4G-byte memory extension that Torvalds incorporated.

TurboLinux, however, may experience some flak from open-source purists for its decision to keep as proprietary other software in the TurboCluster Server product, but the software will not render its Linux incompatible with other Linuxes.

Another unusual tack for TurboLinux to take, Weiss said, is to use SCO as the consulting arm for the software. "It represents for SCO a departure from their traditional market focused on their technology and operating system,'' Weiss said. "I only question ... how will they treat in a fair way the needs of the Linux world.'' SCO's professional services division of 100 workers and contractors are well-schooled on open-source software and Unix on Intel platforms, said Mike Foster, director of corporate communications at SCO. He said the consulting arm of SCO is independent of the operating system arm of the company.

Other Unix vendors, most notably Silicon Graphics Inc., IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co., have also pledged support for Linux that analysts have judged credible. But in an interview with Computerworld in April, SCO CEO Doug Michels was deeply critical of Linux: "Companies like Red Hat ... take Linux technology with a lot less value added, and they package it up and say, Hey, this is better than SCO.' Well, it isn't. And very few customers are buying that story."

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