Linux gets 64-bit boost

Until recently, 64-bit computing has resembled high society — dominated by exclusive clubs. Big-name vendors like IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Silicon Graphics Inc. have used proprietary chips and versions of the Unix operating system written for their specific chips.

Now, however, a number of working-class caps have been seen scattered among all those top hats. Chip makers Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) Inc., which cut their teeth in the PC and server market, have entered the market of high-performance, 64-bit computing, bringing a more working-class operating system: Linux.

Intel's Itanium 2 and AMD's Opteron have broken the proprietary link between chip and operating system, enabling Linux to enter the 64-bit market, not to mention Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system. Government agencies that want the flexibility and cost advantage of open-source Linux software but need the high performance of 64-bit systems now have a new option.

Bill Feiereisen, leader of the computer and computational sciences division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said his organization's strategic plan is to move as many projects as possible to commodity 64-bit chips and Linux.

With proprietary chips, boxes and operating systems, there is no way to know the longevity of applications, which may be completely rewritten in a different operating system if the organization changes its hardware, he said. With Linux, the application can usually be transferred relatively easily to any other processor that also runs Linux.

The laboratory has contracted with Linux Networx Inc. to build a cluster of 1,408 dual-processor Opteron servers. The system, known as Lightning, is expected to rank among the most powerful supercomputers in the world.

Feiereisen said that although the hardware cost of the project was high, it was not as pricey as it would have been with proprietary boxes. Also, although the upfront development costs of migration to Linux are significant, the subsequent software costs should be significantly lower.

"Creating the kinds of applications we're involved in takes a huge effort, and we want to amortize that effort over many years," he said.

In another high-performance computing project, TeraGrid, a distributed scientific grid supercomputing system, will use Intel's Itanium 2 processors. Grid computing is a relatively new way to build virtual supercomputers by connecting servers via the Internet. The effort will be funded with $53 million from the National Science Foundation.

The largest portion of the system's computing power will be at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, based at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Rob Pennington, senior associate director for computing and data management there, said 64-bit processors are essential for the system's mathematical precision.

The project will be developed using Linux as much as possible and will have a number of sites, each with different systems. The open-source operating system, which can be patched to run on many types of hardware, makes it much easier to share applications among sites. "The use of Linux greatly simplifies our work," Pennington said.

For most shops, cost reduction is the primary selling point of the Linux/Intel 64-bit matchup.

The Linux operating system is inexpensive when acquired from vendors such as Red Hat Inc. or SuSE Inc., which package the code with support tools and services. And the Intel- and AMD-based servers, even if they don't outperform proprietary 64-bit Unix servers, are sufficiently less expensive to give them an overall price-performance edge, according to Joe Borkowski, vice president of product management at Paracel Inc., which develops genomic data and text analysis systems for the government market.

"For the same amount of processing power, an Itanium 2- or an Opteron-based system will usually cost significantly less than a [proprietary] system," Borkowski said.

He said the exact price-performance advantage depends on the characteristics of the application — for example, how it uses memory and its communication requirements. There may even be some cases in which proprietary chips win.

So far, the majority of the Intel and AMD 64-bit chip deployments are in the high-performance, scientific technical computing market because although virtually all major database vendors currently or will soon have versions available for Linux on Itanium 2 and Opteron, few business applications for those chips have been released.

Early 64-bit adopters have been in market segments with a lot of in-house technical ability and expertise. "The people who use these systems are very comfortable writing their own applications," said David Turek, vice president of IBM's Deep Computing division. "They're not the people waiting for the new version of an application to be released."

Turek said IBM and others are actively encouraging software vendors to make their applications compatible with 64-bit Linux.

Tom Donnelly, Intel's director of marketing for the public sector, said that aside from the scientific community, few government agencies will rewrite applications to take advantage of Itanium 2. Consequently, most of the Itanium 2-based projects will seek to run new applications specifically written for the chip. Most of those will be in areas where the installed base of legacy equipment is smaller.

"Right now I don't see many U.S. government agencies doing a forklift upgrade to a major business system," Donnelly said. There are exceptions, he added. For example, Intel is in talks with the Census Bureau about a project to move its database to MySQL, an open-source database, and run it on Linux on an Itanium 2-based system.

The release of 64-bit commodity chips — when Linux sufficiently matures to use them — may be a godsend for the Linux community. In a sense, the operating system may benefit from merely being at the right place at the right time.

"Sixty-four-bit commodity chips now give people a viable performance alternative to [proprietary] chips," said Russ Ray, senior manager for server product management at Dell Computer Corp. "But then we needed a viable operating system, and there was Linux."

Gordon Haff, a senior server technology analyst and information technology adviser at Illuminata Inc., estimates that more than half of Itanium 2 implementations run the Linux operating system, and the majority of those are for high-performance scientific applications.

But Microsoft's share may increase when more business applications become available, Haff said.

The point is not that Linux will take over the market for 64-bit boxes that use Intel and AMD chips. Most likely, the Microsoft OS will be the 1,000-pound gorilla there as it is in the 32-bit chip arena. But for the first time, there are 64-bit chips for which there are no proprietary operating systems. And Linux is there, ready to help anyone who needs high-power, open-source software.

Stevens is a freelance journalist who has written about information technology since 1982.

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Powering up

There is no way to quantify the actual boost that Linux will get from the new breed of 64-bit hardware, but many in the open-source community are happy about recent events.

"We think this will be a watershed event for open-source," said Martin Hudson, chief technology officer at Development InfoStructure Corp., an Arlington, Va.-based open-source solutions provider. He believes that open-source software tends to grow in waves of technical innovations. "The commoditization of 64-bit processors will allow open-source efforts that have traditionally made do with low-end hardware to shed the perception that they don't compete on horsepower," Hudson said. Also, even though Intel Corp.'s and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s 64-bit chips won't automatically run each other's operating systems and applications, porting Linux from one chip to the other poses fewer legal and technical barriers than doing the same among the different proprietary 64-bit chips.

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