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New products help Linux enter hot market

Skinny servers stacked up by the dozen are rapidly becoming the preferred way for PC companies to squeeze profits out of the popularity of the free Linux operating systems.

Skinny servers stacked up by the dozen are rapidly becoming the preferred way for PC companies to squeeze profits out of the popularity of the free Linux operating systems.

Several factors--relatively low cost, high reliability and network-friendliness--make Linux a good choice for companies that need lots of servers to handle tasks such as delivering Web pages or funneling requests to a back-end database. Such tasks will get easier with the arrival of new products from Penguin Computing, SGI, IBM and Network Engines.

The announcements are the opening volleys of the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo that begins this week in New York. The conference has grown rapidly with the widespread adoption of Linux, a clone of the Unix operating system and a competitor to Microsoft's Windows NT.

Penguin, which is trying to be David to Sun Microsystems' Goliath, has licensed Resonate's software for keeping Internet information flowing smoothly from a collection of servers, said Mike Tar, product manager at Penguin. Resonate's software has been available for other operating systems, but Penguin is the first licensee of a new version of the software for Linux and will sell it packaged with its new "I-Node" rack-mountable servers.

Computer maker SGI has come up with a new thin server, the 3.5-inch thick, two-Pentium SGI Internet Server, said Greg Estes, general manager of SGI's Internet solutions division. The server will be packaged with a new software product, the ProPack 1.2, a collection of SGI customizations, optimizations, software and other improvements to Red Hat's version of Linux.

Meanwhile, IBM, which sells a rare two-processor server only 1.75 inches thick, is busy building new rack-mountable servers and improving Linux so the operating system can take advantage of fancy features such as the ability to add new network cards or swap out defective memory while the system is still running, according to Alex Yost, manager of marketing for IBM's Netfinity server line.

Network Engines, the company from which IBM licensed that thin design, is pushing ahead with new servers of its own. The company has released thin server "appliances"--single-purpose machines--for several different types of Web page jobs. The different jobs range from delivering Web pages to administering collections of servers.

Meanwhile, TurboLinux, a seller of the Linux operating system itself, is taking another approach. It announced a new software package called enFuzion that lets Linux and other computers on a network collectively act like a single powerful computer--a method similar to the Beowulf technology popular for Linux. EnFuzion, though, can tie together computers running Linux, Windows NT, or the various forms of Unix from SGI, Compaq, IBM, Sun and Hewlett-Packard. EnFuzion, which will be available March 1, is in use at JP Morgan, Rockefeller University and other sites, the company said.

SGI has embarked on an aggressive plan to embrace Linux for its new line of Intel-based servers and workstations, and it already has a strong presence in the scientific and technical community, which is interested in the sort of number-crunching tasks these gangs of computers are good at. However, SGI also wants to sell them to companies who want to analyze sales information or financial data.

To beef up its "Beowulf" offerings, SGI will begin selling its new Advanced Clustering Environment, Estes said. A 32-CPU collection of computers, complete with the management software that distributes jobs among the rest of the computers, will cost about $125,000, he said.

Penguin Computing's I-Node machines cost about $8,000 for a two-node system, but a full rack of more than 40 thin servers costs about $150,000, the company said.

Penguin Computing competes with publicly traded VA Linux Systems but considers its main rival Sun Microsystems, said chief executive Sam Ockman. Sun's success rests on its strategy in the 1980s of taking on more expensive but better established competitors, a technique Ockman now hopes to use against Sun itself, he said.

The company's best-selling products are its 3.5-inch, two-processor rack-mountable servers, he said.

The Resonate software used on the Penguin Computing I-Nodes lets a company automatically route different types of Web traffic to different servers, Tar said. For example, high-paying customers visiting a Web site could be routed to faster servers that handle complex iterations, whereas lower-priority customers with simpler transactions could be routed to lower-end boxes. HP has a similar software called WebQOS for ensuring the quality of service to important Web site visitors.