Automaker Audi Implements Linux update from February 2004

The German automaker is using a cluster of Linux-on-Intel systems to simulate parts and design factory tooling for its next-generation chassis.

February 5, 2004

5 Min Read
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At times, Linux seems almost like a religion: Either you believe or you don't. Soon, true believers who are in the market for cars may feel inclined to buy Audis as a demonstration of their faith. That's because the German automaker is using a cluster of Linux-on-Intel systems to simulate parts and design factory tooling for its next-generation chassis. Audi replaced an eight-processor, RISC-based system from Hewlett-Packard that was running HP-UX and coming off a three-year lease.

But the move to Linux is much more than a symbolic gesture for Audi, a unit of Volkswagen AG. In fact, Audi intends to use Linux for as many applications as possible.

"If the application allows us to move to Linux, we will do it," says Martin Saller, Audi's head of virtual-reality planning and projects in Ingolstadt, Germany. "We don't see any need to stay on the Unix side if the app is available for Linux."

In fact, the VR unit's move to Linux was driven largely by Magma GmbH, which supplies Audi with simulation software to plan the manufacturing process for new car designs before prototypes are available. Magma had never optimized its simulation tool for HP-UX or other variants of Unix, but had done so for Linux systems from Linux Networx and Siemens Fujitsu. Windows wasn't even an option because Magmasoft, the simulation software, doesn't run on that platform.

Audi runs Red Hat Linux on an 18-system cluster from Linux Networx. Each box houses two 32-bit Intel 2.4-GHz processors. Sixteen of those systems are devoted to simulation calculations for castings. One system serves as a hot standby and the other system houses the management software. Audi uses LSF (Load Sharing Facility) from Platform Computing to manage the cluster. The migration was mostly plug-and-play, Saller says. Magma provided most of the updates, and Audi's internal developers tweaked the LSF user interface to work with the Linux Networx boxes in just a few weeks.Audi leases the cluster for about half the price of the HP system, roughly 250,000 euros ($312,000) over three years. Audi did not solicit bids from HP because the software was not optimized for Unix. Thanks to clustering and optimization, the Magma application runs much faster on this configuration than on the Unix platform, Saller says. A simulation of a single component that used to take two weeks with the RISC system now takes less than two days.

"Optimization makes a huge difference," says Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group technology consultancy. "Think of a race car that is optimized for straightaways. Even if it's faster, a car optimized for an oval track will chew it up on the oval."

The Magma connection isn't unusual. Manufacturers devoted to a particular package of specialty software like Magma's often architect their systems around the application, Enderle says. U.S. automakers have been known to construct their systems around the requirements of CAD (computer-aided design) tools, for example.

Audi had been using Linux systems for crash simulation, noise-vibration simulation and fluid dynamics, Saller says. The crash-simulation system alone requires 400 CPUs. Saller praises the cluster's performance and says it has run just as reliably and stably as the RISC system that preceded it. In fact, during a heat wave last summer, 29 legacy RISC systems failed, while the Linux Networx cluster stayed online, Saller says.

Enderle points out that while Linux is proving reliable for all types of tasks, any system runs better in a single-task environment like Audi's."Windows' reliability jumps in cases like that," Enderle says. "In fact, one of the most stable systems is the Windows PBX. Once you increase the complexity, you increase the likelihood of failure."

It's still rare for an IT shop to choose Linux as a go-to system architecture as Audi has, Enderle says, but it's becoming more common, particularly in Germany, the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe. "It lends itself to environments that have been heavily Unix or OS/2," he says.

Indeed, Linux is most often replacing big Unix-RISC systems rather than Wintel systems, Enderle says, even though he sees Wintel as catching up to Unix-RISC in terms of scalability and reliability. The reason: Unix and Linux administration are very similar, whereas a move to Windows requires new tools and skill sets. Perhaps this begins to explain why Sun Microsystems is hurting so badly, says Enderle. "Linux is taking Unix off right at the knees."

Linux is also stealing the inside track when RISC users seek out less expensive, commodity systems based on the Intel architecture.

"Before Linux came along, the most common migration was to Microsoft," Enderle says. "That's not true anymore."

Only after popular server-side applications are ported to Linux will the Linux distributions be able to take direct aim at Microsoft in multiapplication server environments, Enderle says. For now, the lack of ISV (independent software vendor) support for most Linux variants makes it difficult for enterprises to commit to Linux for everyday applications. The next battleground for the Linux vendors may be for the hearts and minds of ISVs, as the vendors try to extend their footprints beyond single-purpose server installations.It would be much easier, Enderle says, if ISVs could simply develop a version of their wares to run on all Linux distributions. But as with Unix, the only thing common among the various Linux flavors is the open-source kernel at the core. All the resources on top of that are unique to the platform.

Saller does see one downside to Linux. For large Linux-Intel deployments to match RISC systems in power and reliability, they typically have to be clustered. Although Platform Computing's LSF lets Audi manage its cluster, Saller says he would like to see big multiprocessor Linux systems emerge to relieve the burden of having to administer so many separate system images.

He may get his wish. For years, big-systems vendors have resisted designing multiprocessor Linux systems for fear of cannibalizing their Unix businesses. But now, some are realizing that the move to Linux is inevitable and perhaps the only defense against Microsoft in the data center, Enderle says. The most notable convert is IBM. SGI also has begun marketing what it calls Linux supercomputers.

It's taking time, but the Linux movement is becoming more pragmatic. Audi and other big IT shops are voting not with their passions but with their pocketbooks, and the religion is spreading.

David Joachim is editor of the NETWORK COMPUTING Enterprise Architecture Group. Write to him at [email protected]. 0

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