Linux and Intel Together: Ready for Prime Time

Cost and speed continue to be two of the top concerns for users shopping for high-end servers. In 2003, however, the availability of Intel's Itanium 2 and Xeon processors and

January 5, 2004

6 Min Read
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Cost and speed continue to be two of the top concerns for users shopping for high-end servers. In 2003, however, the availability of Intel's Itanium 2 and Xeon processors and the evolution of the Linux operating system have coalesced to create a broad array of server products aimed at the needs of users who want high-performance servers at affordable pricing.

"In 2003, a combination of things have allowed Itanium-based servers to scale up to where RISC platforms used to be," said Shannon Pulin, enterprise marketing manager at Intel, Portland, Ore. "Now, machines with up to 128 processors are available, as well as operating systems to support that level of scalability."

In the past 12 months, just about every well-known high-end server manufacturer, including IBM, SGI, Hewlett Packard and Fujitsu, has introduced products that incorporate the newest 64-bit Intel processor technology and support the Linux OS. Now, it's up to users to figure out whether these products actually will meet their needs as well as traditional RISC-based Unix servers do, while putting a lower price tag on total cost of ownership (TCO).

There's no question that Linux-based servers are increasing in popularity, a trend analysts predict will accelerate. Linux server revenue will increase at a compound annual growth rate of 28.3 percent, while worldwide Linux revenue will increase to $7.9 billion in 2007 from $2.3 billion in 2002, according to market research firm IDC's Worldwide Server Market Forecast (March 2003). Linux ships on at least 25 percent of new servers, IDC estimated.

"We are seeing everyone come to the table saying that they want an Intel platform that runs Linux and Windows," said Mark Feverston, vice president of platform marketing at Unisys, Blue Bell, Pa. "Clients looking at moving off of Unix tend to want to evaluate not just the OS but also the availability of toolsets and utilities and [the] maturity of those things."Unisys is taking a wait and see attitude on Linux. The Unisys Enterprise Server ES7000, which was introduced early in 2002, ships standard with the Microsoft Windows 2000 Datacenter Server and provides scalability to 16 processors. Users that want to use Linux, though, can partition the server to run both Windows and Linux simultaneously.

Many other vendors report, though, that both the Linux OS and Intel's processors are ready for prime time. Some users are becoming interested in investing in a server using only Linux as the stability and reliability of the products are proven, and software and tools become readily available. "It takes time for a new architecture, like the Itanium [to be completely supported and stable]," said Andy Fenselau, SGI Altix product line director at the Mountain View, Calif.-based company. "Now that we are into the fourth year, the tools are finally coming together. And at the hardware level, we are getting mean time between failure (MTBF) ratings that are better than Unix boxes."

In addition, many major ISVs are jumping on the Linux bandwagon and are providing their mainstream applications running on Linux. Oracle Corp., Redwood Shores, Calif., for example, has announced Linux support for most of its key offerings, including Oracle9i Database with Real Application Clusters, Oracle9i Application Server, Oracle Collaboration Suite, Oracle9i Developer Suite and Oracle E-Business Suite.

In January 2003, SGI unveiled its Altix 3000 family of servers and superclusters. The systems, which primarily are aimed at technical computer users in the manufacturing, oil and gas, life sciences, academic and defense markets, feature the company's shared-memory NUMAflex architecture and Intel Itanium 2 processors. The systems are available today in server configurations of 4 to 64 processors, and supercluster configurations of 4 to 512 processors.

"Fifty [percent] to 60 percent of processor power is used for communications overhead [in traditional systems]," said Fenselau. "The shared memory system literally makes all of that go away, so that, at full memory bus speeds, I/O bus speeds are 10 to 30times faster."Often, the first companies that move are those that see technology as a competitive advantage. "They see that the flexibility and cost of ownership of Linux will help them with that strategy [and] are the first to move," said Brian Cox, product line manager for Business Critical Systems (BCS) atHP, Palo Alto, Calif. "Others know that they need to do a technology refresh are taking a close look at Itanium-based products because they know they can move forward with Itanium on Unix and move to Linux someday if they want to."

In June, HP introduced its Itanium 2-based Superdome servers with eight processors. Although currently available only with the Unix HP/UX and Windows Server 2003 operating system, the company has promised to add Linux to the Superdome family in mid-2004. In addition, IBM in Armonk, N.Y., in June took the wraps off its eServer systems which will scale up to 32 Intel Xeon MP or Itanium 2 processors.

Another concern for corporate users is their ability to adequately support yet another operating system. "Within the Fortune 2000, it is a rare situation when we come across a company that is not actively trying to use Linux software wherever possible," said Richard McCormack, vice president of marketing for Fujitsu in the U.S. "Frequently, the decision they finally make is influenced by their own comfort level and their skill set from a training point of view within the IT organization." Fujitsu is shipping its PRIMERGY RX300 and PRIMERGY TX300 dual Intel Xeon servers running Red Hat's Linux operating system. The Fujitsu rack and tower servers feature Intel Xeon 3.06 GHz processors with 533 MHz Front Side Bus and Hyper-Threading architecture.

Smaller companies are likely to be more reluctant to take up the Linux mantel in light of support and training issues. "In the small to medium enterprise, you'll see a little slower take up," said McCormack. "The smaller guys are still saying 'Show me,' since they don't have big IT shops to do the testing, so they need to wait until it is well proven in the streets."

However, these concerns should be short-lived as companies begin to develop in-house talent experienced in supporting Intel-based servers and Linux applications. "Any time a company does something new and transitions from something that was known, there is always concern, but as they train IT staff and build expertise on Intel architecture, they get less and less concerned because they have more resources at their disposal," said Intel's Pulin.Conventional wisdom dictates that open-source operating systems inherently are more affordable. However, it is important to go beyond hardware costs. In calculating potential savings of using a Linux-based server over a RISC-based Unix alternative, users should consider not only the cost of the hardware but also service costs. Often, they will find the savings are more substantial than they imagined.

"In terms of the support model for Intel-based products, you are also saving money," said Pulin. "That's fueling the momentum in terms of Intel platforms in the enterprise. It's a combination of hardware acquisition costs, on-going support costs and the cost of IT staff expertise."

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