Linux flexes its Power

The Linux operating system has found yet another home, this time in a place traditionally reserved for Unix.

IBM Corp. recently announced that it would be offering configurations of its eServer p630 dedicated to Linux. The pSeries servers are its 64-bit RISC (reduced instruction set computing) Power4 processors which traditionally run AIX, IBM’s Unix operating system.

The move, says one analyst, is most likely IBM’s response to Intel’s 64-bit Linux bid on its Itanium processors.

“This is kind of an IBM slap at Itanium, really,” said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata in Nashua, N.H.

Whatever IBM’s reasoning behind the play, at least one Linux user is excited about the new offering.

“I use Unix systems for all sorts of high-end endeavours in my day job, and would be most interested in powerful hardware running Linux,” said Robert Brockway, a professional system administrator working on contract for an Australian state government.

If he had access to Linux on a Power4 server, Brockway would consider using it as a file server for a large number of users or as a high-end mail server. Oracle products would also probably be a popular choice for the platform, Brockway said. Although this would require a recompile, it would be an easy matter, he said.

It’s the availability of software that often determines a processor’s success, but may not be the deciding factor in this case, Haff said. There have been many processors with great designs that are no longer around because there wasn’t software available for them, he said.

However, although there aren’t enough apps available today, designed specifically to support Linux on the p630, this may not turn away users, he said.

In the high-performance computing arena, there’s a lot of custom code, and a lot of users will be willing to recompile code if they think they can get better performance, he said.

Currently, Power4 and Itanium are roughly comparable in terms of performance, Haff said.

“Itanium has been getting some traction in high-performance computing running Linux,” Haff said.

“Arguably, it’s one of the few spots that Itanium has gotten any traction.”

Initial interest in the p630 will likely come from enterprises running IBM environments, Haff said.

“I think, primarily though, in an enterprise, if they’re buying the Power4 hardware, they’ve probably been using AIX already, and would probably just go ahead and use AIX.”

The p630 running on Linux was introduced to provide users with a lower cost for acquiring 64-bit capable Linux machines, said Chris Pratt, manager of strategic initiatives for IBM Canada in Markham, Ont. Until now, Linux on the pSeries servers was only available in an AIX/Linux partition.

“It’s not a stripped down version of the pSeries. It has all of the reliability and availability that any pSeries product has – so it’s the ability to basically give customers a lower entry cost in running 64-bit Linux,” Pratt said.

He isn’t worried about this new offering taking away AIX customers.

“The reality is, proprietary operating systems such as AIX offer much more in terms of functionality than Linux.”

Like Haff, he believes the offering will attract customers using pSeries AIX machines looking to run certain functions on the Linux operating system who want to maintain a standard hardware platform.

The fact that IBM is offering Linux on its Power4 further legitimizes the Linux operating system, said Joseph D’Cruz, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Mangement.