God rested on the seventh day. Why shouldn’t Ken Innes?
At Ekos Research, where Innes is CIO, the company works on public opinion polls that clients expect to be reliable sources of data. It’s only fair, then, that the firm’s servers be equally reliable. But until recently, Innes found himself
struggling to upgrade or handle security patches on Ekos’ aging Windows NT boxes. That’s why he says the company recently switched over to Linux.
“”It frees up my Sundays,”” he says. “”I don’t have to come in and reboot the server every week.””
As with file and print services, companies like Ekos are putting more of their Web servers on open source products. The next stage, experts say, is a gradual migration of Linux to the higher echelons of the data centre, which has traditionally been dominated by Unix. Earlier this year, for example, the investment bank Goldman Sachs released a study which indicated the price, performance, stability and security of Linux may make it suitable for more demanding computing tasks.
Vendors are responding to the promise of Linux’s potential in high-end environments by developing standards and products to get it there.
A few months ago, a consortium of hardware manufacturers said they had improved support for Linux in nonuniform memory access, or NUMA, which was accepted by Linux creator Linus Torvalds in version 2.5 of the OS kernel, which is in testing now. Fujitsu and Intel recently said they will jointly develop high-
performance Linux-based computers, aiming for sales of $900 million (US) by 2006. In January, SGI launched a server called the Altix 3000 that will run on 64 of Intel’s Itanium 2 processors. The machine is specifically intended for customers requiring heavy-duty numerical calculations such as car-crash analysis or aircraft aerodynamics.
“”Linux until recently has equalled commodity. Linux has equalled cheap. It has equalled basic functionality,”” says Andy Fenselau, SGI’s Altix 3000 product line manager. “”I don’t mean any of those in a negative way, but they also have some challenges or compromises associated with them.””
Traditionally, high-end Linux has involved the creation of a cluster of small one or two-processor 32-bit Linux boxes, Fenselau says, but in some cases these have a memory capacity of only 4 GB. The clusters can also involve a high I/O communication overhead, which in turn increases the total cost of ownership. This may be why companies with a strong Unix background, like Sun Microsystems, have scoffed at the idea of Linux running mission-critical systems.
“”We see a considerable volume of new business that’s beginning to emerge with Linux, but go check the stats — the growth in Linux hasn’t been on the server, it’s been on the client,”” Sun chief executive Scott McNealy said recently. “”The only growth in Linux has been on desktops. What happened in the servers? It shrank.””
Dan Kuznetsky, an operating system analyst at IDC, says Sun’s attitude ignores the fact that the Unix market has seen declines in revenues and shipments between 2000 and 2001. That’s not to say Linux is necessarily replacing it, however.
“”Linux is a very small portion of the market by revenues,”” he says. “”Microsoft made more money selling Windows in the first two days of 2001.””
Although IBM has occupied a position in the data centre with its proprietary AIX Unix, the company has no problems swapping it. Chris Pratt, manager of Big Blue’s eServer strategic initiatives, says large-scale operations like Dresdner Bank have installed Linux clusters, and he expects Linux to displace some Unix installs.
Not everyone is so sure. At Critical Path, which provides software to telecommunications carriers, chief technology officer Michael Serbinis says customers began asking for Linux in the high end years ago, but he felt the reliability wasn’t there. To some extent, he says, it still isn’t.
“”Shifts in the marketplace aren’t that sudden. In the Linux movement, it’s been particularly slow,”” he says. His telco clients can’t afford software that lets them down, he says. “”If you lose calls, you lose big.””
Innes, who is thinking of replacing Ekos’ Novell-based call centre terminals with Linux, says the support of companies like IBM and Dell, which have been pre-loading Linux on some servers, provides some necessary reassurance.
“”I don’t know that I’d want to use some home-cooked version of Linux that doesn’t have some kind of a company backing it up,”” he says.
If he finally gets to rest on Sundays, in other words, Innes wants to rest easy.