David HM Spector
Weather Fit for a Penguin
To say that the weather was cold at this year's LinuxWorld Expo at New York's Jacob K. Javits Center can hardly do justice to the feeling of walking across 34th Street. The cold cut like a knife; of course it was impossible to get a cab going to the center due to NYC's unending traffic problems and cabbies' general avoidance of destinations near the river with few return-fare possibilities. Among the throngs of fellow native New Yorkers, tourists, and Linux devotees freezing in the streets, I was sure I saw some actual penguins sunning themselves or being chased by hungry polar bears that couldn't score lunch reservations at Nobu.
First Show of a New Era
If tradeshow size is any indication, we may be in a new era of austerity when it comes to introducing products in the computer industry. This year's show took up just one exhibit hall in the Javits Center. The 2001 LinuxWorld Expo show was much larger (although not as huge as the boom-time, pre-crash show of 2000) and featured a more varied array of companies.
The lack of small companies with new products also made this year's show different. Large companies--IBM, HP, Intel, and Dell--dominated the show floor in the hardware space, but one (relatively) new entrant, Egenera, did get a lot of attention with its very impressive SAN/PAN based clusters. Egenera is a company to watch: the capabilities of its servers and the intensity with which it is working to deliver performance bring to mind another high-performance computing company of years past--Cray Research.
Check out what went on at the O'Reilly booth and find out who the drawing winners are.
Computer Associates (CA), Red Hat, Ximian and, surprisingly, Microsoft held down the software front in terms of mainstream companies producing general-purpose software. (Of course, Microsoft's focus was on how to replace your Unix and Linux servers with Windows.) All of the focus was on integrating Linux systems at every level of the enterprise. For CA this meant releasing new or updated Linux clients for everything from their ARCServe Apache and MySQL/Database backup software to tools to manage WebSphere systems. For Ximian and Red Hat it was demonstrating new versions of their desktop and advanced server systems, respectively.
There were few smaller software companies in attendance this year and even fewer fledgling or user-group booths. Most of these were placed at the far edge of the show floor away from the highly trafficked aisles. Presumably this can be chalked up to the expense of renting booth space at a venue like the Javits Center and dismal economic conditions plaguing the industry. Hopefully the economy will get back on its feet and there will be more start-up and small innovator representation at the August LinuxWorld in San Francisco.
What really set the LinuxWorld apart from the rest was the clear focus of all the major participants on just one topic. Given the venue of New York City, it's not too shocking that that topic was Financial Services and the application of Linux-based hardware and software to meet the needs of banks, brokerages, and money managers.
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Financial Services Focus
What's surprising about the financial services focus of this LinuxWorld show is that it seems to be exposing a trend in how Linux is growing into new markets. The new growth pattern seems to be the horizontal integration of Linux across a variety of platforms. This draws IT shops into the realization that Linux is a stable and fast replacement for almost any kind of expensive legacy system.
The origins of Linux are well known, and the financial incentives for moving to Linux, although clear to in-the-know technologists for years, have now found fertile ground with corporate CFOs who have to justify their IT budgets in tight fiscal times.
The first real indication of this trend was seen in the supercomputing marketplace. Previously, people who needed such power had to spend obscene amounts of money on proprietary systems the had no growth path besides the purchase of entirely new systems. Linux affords these users more bang for their bucks. Next came the digital effects shops that learned how to take advantage of parallel Linux clusters to make movies. Unfortunately, these were niche markets that were easy for most business managers to dismiss because they couldn't grok the bigger picture. Now a mostly under-the-table trend--the adoption of Linux by Wall Street--has gone public and the rest of the IT consuming community is jumping on board, not just because the hardware is cheap but because the whole package (OS, applications, desktop) is available no matter your platform.
The success in the financial services is the first mainstream watershed "ah-hah!" moment for the Linux movement at large. When I helped bring the Internet to Wall Street as a Vice President at JP Morgan years ago, I worked for a Managing Director who said in 1991 that he'd rather "depend on it [the Internet] for email rather than trust his paycheck to be delivered over it." His point was well taken; in 1991 there wasn't a critical mass of either mind-share or applications to make people comfortable with the Internet as a business vehicle or a way to move money. Online banking, trading, and ecommerce by the ordinary consumers changed all that. Before Wall St. started using Linux in a big way, where real money was at stake, it was easy to dismiss Linux as a niche and something that you wouldn't want to use if "real money" were at stake. That's not the case any more.
Expect some really big news popping up with the first spring flowers as other business areas to start their wholesale adoption of Linux from the bottom of the data center to desktops in the corporate office.
Enterprise Tools on Parade
Since it's clear Linux is no longer a dirty word in the mainstream IT marketplace, what exactly is driving the adoption of Linux systems beyond price? Lower TCO only goes so far once you have the boxes in the door--there must be something that's attracting large enterprises to Linux.
Most of the drivers are things we have covered in this column before: massive integration, the ability of Linux to serve in multiple roles (mail server, web server, development platform, parallel computer, etc.), but it seems we have transcended these basic properties and are moving into the realm of emergent properties. An emergent property is a feature or characteristic larger than the natural sum of its constituent parts. The ability of a collective of ants to work as individuals whose actions constitute what appears to be collective planning is such an emergent property. For Linux this means that we are seeing new collective capabilities growing out of fairly straightforward technologies like clustering, virtual machines, and virtualized storage.
In the Linux world there are several trends approaching emergent capabilities and these were on display at LinuxWorld Expo. Here are a few companies and products to watch:
Egenera had one of the most impressive hardware displays at the show. They manufacture integrated server-blade systems that combine the power of Itanium processors, SAN and network mesh architecture, and mainframe-class management capabilities.
Qlusters is the company bringing a commercialized version of Moshe Bar's OpenMosix to market. OpenMosix allows completely automatic load balancing and process migration on commodity Linux clusters. Dr. Bar and his team have extended the basic OpenMOSIX framework to include migrate-able sockets and network distributed shared memory (net-DSM), giving clusters an out-of-the-box capability that will revolutionize the deployment of large-scale software systems. At its booth Qlusters demonstrated automatic (or drag-and-drop via a GUI) process migration with a vanilla copy of Oracle 9i. With Qlusters software and a small cluster, it's possible to spend approximately $60,000 on hardware and software and get $600,000 worth of performance. This means applications can automatically scale onto parallel clusters without rewriting any code and still see large performance increases.
Linuxcare is familiar to many in the Linux community because of the twists and turns in its corporate history. The current product line will firmly cement Linux into really large IBM mainframe environments, a venue that has long resisted change of any kind. Linuxcare has developed a configuration management suite called Levanta for IBM's zVM line of machines that makes the management of thousands of server instances a breeze. (I'll be writing an in-depth article on Levanta soon.)
Powerllel is a software company that I've covered before in this space. It develops software that accelerates parallel applications; at this LinuxWorld, Powerllel demonstrated middleware that allows off the shelf packages such as Microsoft Excel to take advantage of clusters and grids transparently. It was especially impressive when the cluster back-end was the large cluster being demonstrated by Egenera.
In upcoming articles we'll dive deeper into some of the new trends as well as new challenges facing Linux and the Linux community
David HM Spector is President & CEO of Really Fast Systems, LLC, an infrastructure consulting and product development company based in New York
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