Crown corp leaves Unix behind in order to run economic models on cluster

Bank of Canada puts its money on Linux back end and Windows PCs

TORONTO – The Bank of Canada is slowly moving off of Unix into an environment that will see its economic analysts using Windows PCs to create models running on a Linux-based cluster.

Four analytical departments at the Ottawa-based Crown corporation are affected by the project, which also includes Linux compute servers running in parallel and a host OS for VMWare. The Bank of Canada has traditionally been a Sun Microsystems shop, according to senior technical analyst Christian Boutin, but the need to make use of specialized financial applications pushed the organization towards open source.

“We would have liked to run on Solaris – there wouldn’t have been as much for us to learn,” he said, “but the third-party tools weren’t ready.”

Boutin made his remarks at a media briefing held during the LinuxWorld/NetworkWorld Canada conference and hosted by IBM, which is supplying the Bank of Canada its xSeries (recently rebranded System X) servers. The bank still runs Sun servers in parts of its network, however. The Linux cluster, which is being deployed and administrated using a toolkit called Xcat, was set up last December.

Besides making decisions about interest rates, the Bank of Canada deals with funds management, retail debt and other aspects of the country’s monetary policy. The organization sees the Linux OS as an “enabler” of applications such as MatLab which are used to develop and run complex economic models, Boutin said. “You’re not running Word or even an Excel spreadsheet,” he said.

On the other hand, the need to communicate with the Department of Finance and other organizations, means the Bank of Canada has to phase out the Unix workstations for more general-purpose Microsoft desktops. With Windows Vista recently delayed, the bank plans to use Windows XP Professional edition, Boutin said.

“We used to give them tools to work with the Unix workstations to exchange documents with other people.  Now they want the real thing,” he said. 

Chris Pratt, IBM Canada’s manager of strategic initiatives, said the Bank of Canada provided a good illustration of a mixed open source and proprietary enterprise.

“The fact that they’re running Windows on the front end and Linux on the back end – that’s normal,” he said. “The applications on the Linux cluster that do the modelling analysis don’t exist in the Windows world.”

Earlier this month, IBM released Integrated Stack for Linux, a set of hardware and software including Novell’s Suse Linux distribution to help small and medium-sized enterprises integrate Linux servers into Windows environments.

Linux also provided a foundation for iStockphoto Inc., a royalty-free stock photography company that offers contributors the chance to sell one-time rights to their images for $1 each.  Patrick Lor, iStockphoto’s executive vice-president, said the firm reached a turning point in 2002 when it was still charging 25 cents per image. It sold 100,000 images that year, and realized for reasons of scaleability it needed to move off of Coldfusion and Microsoft Access to LAMP, a combination of Linux, Apache Web server, the mySQL database and PHP, a server-side HTML embedded scripting language.

“We were on two generic servers,” said Lor, recalling the growth between 2003 and 2005 of 400 to 600 per cent. “We were calling our IBM guys and saying, ‘We need more servers!’”

Lor said iStockphoto, which in February was acquired by Getty Images for US$50 million, expects about 10 million downloads this year, and is dealing with about 50TB of data storage a month. Although it started with Fibre Channel RAID, it has since moved to IBM”s General Parallel File System.

LinuxWorld/NetworkWorld continues Wednesday.

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