The Elephant (Finally) Dances

The very last LinuxWorld Expo (LWE) to be held in New York City has come and gone. That depresses the hell out of me, so much so that I might start popping little pink Paxils like Penguin Mints. Sure, it was bloody cold outside, and the Javits' idea of food is a $12 concession stand hot dog, french fries, and large Coke "value" lunch combo, but hey, it's still New York City. Cynicism aside, I'm happy to report that great hardware goodies abounded at Linux World Expo, if you knew where to find them.

The very last LinuxWorld Expo (LWE) to be held in New York City has come and gone. That depresses the hell out of me, so much so that I might start popping little pink Paxils like Penguin Mints. Sure, it was bloody cold outside, and the Javits’ idea of food is a $12 concession stand hot dog, french fries, and large Coke “value” lunch combo, but hey, it’s still New York City. Cynicism aside, I’m happy to report that great hardware goodies abounded at Linux World Expo, if you knew where to find them.

Geeks Just a Sideshow

Like every NYC LWE before it, this most recent show catered to enterprise IT, not the Linux geek. So it’s not surprising that clusters and blades and big honkin’ servers were bountiful. IBM pushed its BladeCenter chassis (more on this in a bit), HP demonstrated its Proliant BL, and Sun Microsystems flogged its Athlon and Sparc III blades. (Wait a second: Sun’s a Linux vendor? Who? What?) Meanwhile, Egenera showed off its mega-powerful (and mega-expensive) BladeFrame, Newisys peddled the Quad Processor 4300 Opteron platform, and SGI hawked its Altix 350.

But this Linux World was different, too. It was more professional and polished than others I’ve been to in the past. All of the vendors talked about their hardware and Linux solutions with genuine confidence, and it finally seems like the “Tier 1″ guys “get it” when it comes to Linux. They’ve all got great customer references and are happy to talk about their huge grid computing installations and important line of business applications running on Linux. Unlike previous shows, wares are no longer theory and Linux isn’t a crazy, hippie OS thing anymore. It’s generating real revenue. And it’s about time.

Bright Blue

No company shined more brightly at LWE than IBM. Mind you, I still have emotional scars and am still in therapy from dealing with Big Blue in the ’80s and ’90s with their less-than-committed track record to stuff like OS/2, WorkPlace OS, Taligent, and any number of other abandoned platforms and screwed up marketing schemes, but now I’m finally convinced that IBM is around for the long haul.

IBM’s turned over a permanent new leaf, the bozos are gone, they have young, energetic, and smart people, and they should have our community’s utmost support and confidence in their ability to deliver solutions and hardware and services on Linux — better than any other computing vendor.

I must tell you about all of the cool PowerPC hardware running Linux. Not only cool, it’s priced aggressively. Yep. The elephant can finally dance.

First and foremost is the awesome, number crunching IBM JS20 Bladecenter, the end result of combining a dual processor G5 Power Mac, up to 4 GB of memory, twin IDE hard disks, two integrated Gigabit Ethernet controllers, and a remote systems management chip onto a blade, and then stuffing fourteen of those suckers into a single, 7U, hot-swap enclosure, yielding up to 84 of these dual-processor jobbies in a standard 42U rack. Can you say, “Turnkey high-performance genomics and bioinformatics Linux cluster?” I knew you could.

IBM offers each blade module for $2,699, and it can run Red Hat and SuSE POWER Linux distros, as well as Yellow Dog. To top it all off, you can mix HS20 Intel Xeon-based blades with JS20 POWER blades in the same chassis, so you can get the best of both environments. Need to crunch mega-numbers with the PowerPCs or run a 64-bit Java Virtual Machine on some blades and some Intel-based database software on some others? No problem.

In addition to the Bladecenter and other POWER servers running Linux, IBM also showed embedded PowerPC solutions that we should probably start taking notice of. Although it was only a development prototype, IBM showed a really slick Linux PDA running on the low-power PowerPC 440. The 440 clocks out at a screaming 550 MHz and 1000 MIPS, making it capable of displaying accelerated 3D graphics and full motion video without a single hiccup. Don’t even try to do that on a Zaurus or an IPAQ, people. When are we going to see one of these in the wild? IBM was reticent to say, but various companies are looking at licensing the reference design and it’s possible we’ll see products based on this platform this year.

Oohs and Ahs and AMDs

And then we get to the AMD64 boxes. Ah, sweet Opteron. Opterons were quite conspicuous at last year’s NYC show and at LWE San Francisco, but there was one big difference this time around: support from Tier 1 vendors. It was tucked away in the corner, and the demonstrator was talking in a hush-hush kinda voice, but IBM had an Opteron-based Intellistation. (Hopefully, by the time you read this, we’ll be evaluating one for review. A geek can dream.)

Another company doing hot stuff with Opteron was Newisys. That company’s new machine, the 4300 Enterprise Server, was awesome. The 4300 is a 3U quad-processor Opteron server that can take up to 64 GB of main memory (using 4 GB DIMMs). I’m not sure what sort of insanely huge application you’d want to run on that thing (nuclear explosion simulations, world climatic analysis in real time, and so on), but it’s great to know Linux can do it on this machine. Newisys is also working on some very interesting ways to cluster these boxes using industry standard protocols and fairly off the shelf hardware, so we’re going to be paying attention to these guys quite a bit in the near future.

Hello, Sun

Although I’m convinced Sun still doesn’t quite know if they want to be a proprietary Unix and proprietary hardware solutions vendor or a hardware company selling open solutions and services on Linux like IBM or HP, the company was nonetheless out and about showing their blade servers running on Opterons with Linux and UltraSparc with Solaris 9 in a mixed chassis, which I thought was a pretty cool and compelling solution for companies working in Solaris and Linux heterogeneous environments. I’ve got to hand it to Sun, they offer some cool hardware. (Let’s just hope they wake up and get a clue. And soon.)

HP had plenty of stuff running on Linux, but none of it truly excited me. I find HP’s current product lines about as sexy as a Volvo. They’re boxy, but they’re safe and good.

On the Itanium side of things, the only vendor at the show doing anything truly interesting with this chip was SGI. While I think embracing Itanium 2 limits SGI’s offerings considerably, I still think the new Altix 350 servers are at least conceptually very cool machines and I can see where they could provide some serious value for certain kinds of customers looking for stuff in the high-performance computing space. They’ve come up with a modular, Lego-brick design to building big honkin’ servers, separating CPU, I/O and storage into independent chassis enclosures that you can mix and match into various combinations. SGI’s approach allows for better flexibility and expansion than traditional, integrated box designs. Want more CPUs or more RAM? No problem, just add another chassis. Tres cool.

Which brings us to the preaching and proselytizing section of the program…

Members of the Congregation…

At the time of this writing, rumors were flying all over the Internet about a new Opteron-based HP Proliant server line that would be launched around the time you read this article. So? HP’s got an Opteron server… what’s the big deal?

It’s a very big deal. If some of you recall, HP has been one of the largest proponents and the co-developer of Intel’s Itanium, which some pundits have privately and not-so-privately referred to as the “64-bit albatross.” While that appellation is a bit harsh, as IA-64 has its place in some high-performance enterprise Linux applications, HP’s apparent about-face in 64-bit chips can’t be good for Intel. And to make matters worse, it’s rumored that Intel is to make an about-face of its own, with the announcement of the “CT” 64-bit x86 extensions for its Xeon and Pentium chips to compete with AMD’s X86-64 64-bit extensions on the Opteron and Athlon 64.

Sure, this is a clear attempt on Intel’s part to steal the thunder away from Opteron and Athlon 64. But competition is good — provided one doesn’t try to muddy the waters of industry standardization and create fear, uncertainty and doubt — techniques that have been used against Intel’s competitors and AMD in the past.

Let me make a suggestion to Intel: If you’re going to release CT and it’s not just smoke and mirrors to distract everyone from the fact that Itanium is a loser in the marketplace, acknowledge that AMD has done something good and make it compatible with X86-64. Because if you release an incompatible, competing product meant to confuse the market in an attempt to negate X86-64′s lead in the 64-bit marketplace, the Linux community (and well, even the Windows guys) will eat you alive.

As it is, we’re not happy that you chose to internalize most of your IA-64 Linux development. As a result, the IA-64 software tools on Linux are not where they should be and the platform isn’t yet properly optimized to take advantage of Linux.

See this as an opportunity to undo your mistakes. Use AMD as an example for the way we’d like you to act: compete with a product we really want, and give the Open Source community the support it needs.

See you next month.

Jason Perlow is a Contributing Editor for Linux Magazine. His favorite snack is Opteron chips and guacamole. Jason can be reached at perlow@linux-mag.com.

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