Linux breaking out in clusters

Open-source Linux operating systems have graduated to take on mission-critical tasks within computer networks faster than any other operating system. Fueled by a worldwide community of developers, experts predict that by 2005 continued progress will fine-tune Linux into just another mainstream OS option for the enterprise.

Clustering and availability

For Linux to grow from adolescence into adulthood in the corporate world, the open-source development community must deliver more capabilities that center around high availability and the clustering of multiple Linux computers together as a stable system that can be managed as a single computer.

Proof of Linux's rapid maturation in the enterprise is reflected in a recent survey by IDC, based in Framingham, Mass. According to IDC, more users deployed more Linux-based mission-critical applications in 2000 than the previous year. For instance, 20 percent of users surveyed said they had deployed Linux databases in 2000, up from 10 percent in 1999. Ten percent of users also said they were running at least one mission-critical application on Linux such as an ERP, CRM, or HR application last year, up from 4 percent in 1999.

Steve Prather, vice president of network services at ViaWest, an Internet service company based in Phoenix, has been using Linux successfully for more than three years.

"We've seen very phenomenal reliability and very strong application acceptance and interoperability," Prather says. "There are so many companies out there that are writing Web-enabled content and/or applications to run on different systems, and Linux allows us to have a very broad knife when it comes to people being able to run customer-unique applications. It works very, very well for the multitude of different platforms that are out there."

Although Linux currently appears more at the front end of a network than in the application or database layers, 20 percent of the respondents to IDC's Linux survey said they were supporting database software on their Linux system.

"Our surveys show that Linux [on servers] has achieved mainstream status in a couple of markets, but not in most. Where it is successful typically involves work being done by engineers, scientists, analysts of some kind, or Web-related applications," says Dan Kuznetzky, vice president in charge of infrastructure and platforms at IDC.

Kuznetzky says Linux falling short in that database has little to do with the availability of Linux database software.

"If you want Oracle [Linux], it's there. If you want Sybase, it's there. If you want Informix, it's there. If you want [IBM's] DB2, it's there," Kuznetzky says. "There are also three totally open-source database products that are used quite heavily, including MySQL and PostgreSQL."

Certain clustering technologies that provide for system fail-over are also available, but beyond that lies the current challenge for the Linux community.

"There are a few things out there like TurboLinux's Cluster Server and the Beowulf APIs, but there is almost nothing in the cluster management or monitoring area. Linux needs something that can make multiple servers appear as a single image," Kuznetzky says.

It takes a community

This week's Linux World Conference and Expo in San Francisco will bring together open-source developers and vendors to address issues important to Linux's continued evolution. Shane Robison, CTO and senior vice president of Compaq Computer Corp., will provide the trade show's first keynote address. The challenge of getting Linux "mission-critical-ready to support true back-end server applications" will be Robison's primary subject, according to officials at the Houston-based computer maker.

To speed the progress of Linux clustering, Compaq last June released its SST (Single System Technology) into the open-source community.

"The SST project is a single-image clustering technology that allows you to manage all these multiple [compute] nodes as one server," explains Judy Chavis, manager of Compaq's corporatewide Linux program office.

Sporting technology with a 30-year lineage of running computer clusters from Tandem as well as Compaq's own True64 Alpha clusters, the open-sourced SST is free to be picked up and developed into a product by anyone. But the necessary time needed to develop an actual clustering product from SST leaves any completion date open-ended, Chavis says.

"Every customer has a set of applications -- it may be their database application, their transaction application, their ERP application, their Java development tools -- and they're looking at that entire stack and they're trying to figure out in that stack how many pieces are really ready for Linux," Chavis says. "We all want to equate Linux to [Sun Microsystems' operating system] Solaris, or [IBM's] AIX, or True64, which are grown 40-year-old men compared to a 10-year-old [Linux] operating system, and expect it to have the exact same functionality in its infancy. But there are still pieces that the community, Compaq, and bigger ISVs are addressing."

Commitment

What figures to further fuel Linux clustering fortunes is IBM's commitment to it. As part of the US$1 billion IBM promised to invest this year alone in its own Linux products and those of the community, Big Blue is investing generously in clustering technologies and products.

Much of IBM's muscle-flexing in the clustering arena has been contained to university and other research centers including the Universities of New Mexico and Illinois and the Maui Supercomputer Center. But the company's clustering products are now starting to creep into commercial markets.

Earlier this year IBM announced a major corporate win with Shell Oil, in which the company will install a 1,000-processor Linux cluster. The company has scored other smaller wins in the oil market, signing deals to install clustering solutions with Chevron and Western Gecco.

"Clustering is one of the two top areas where we are going to make additional investments because we are starting to see the technology expand significantly," says Steve Solazzo, vice president in charge of Linux products at IBM in Somers, N.Y.

By year's end IBM intends to deliver a set of "predesigned, preintegrated, factory-installed clustering systems," according to Solazzo, that will be aimed at corporate users.

"What we are really able to do now is build supercomputer-class machines with merchant [clustering] technology," Solazzo says.

Open for business

An unexpected marketing opportunity arose for Linux this past spring when Microsoft announced a revamped volume-licensing plan. Some corporate users pushed back against tactics forcing them to upgrade to current versions of Microsoft OS and applications so as to benefit from the new volume-pricing models.

"I think Microsoft's attempt to clamp down on its users with the new licensing model and the ... registration [of products] ... has made Linux more attractive to us from a cost standpoint," says David Orin, a database administrator at a large Nebraska-based food supplier.

"Hard times are good for open source because IT managers are looking for lower price points. And being able to deploy a whole lot of systems without having to buy a license for each appeals to them," says Bruce Perens, senior Linux and open-source strategist at Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto, Calif. "People used to working with Unix can sit down at Linux, and it is much less costly both for the tools and the operating system."

What Linux can do for the corporate bottom line has contributed to the changing demographic of those making the decisions to deploy it.

"The previous level of adopters were largely technical people with technical titles," says Dan Kuznetzky, vice president in charge of infrastructure and platforms at IDC. "But we're now seeing Linux appear in all sizes of companies -- small, medium, and large -- in all vertical markets that we're tracking, and more and more the people bringing in Linux have titles like director of IT, CTO, and other management titles."

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