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VA Research out front on Linux servers?

Linux computer maker VA is set to ship its eight-way Xeon servers next month, which would put it ahead of the competition.

A Linux computer maker vendor may beat out more mainstream competitors such as IBM and HP with the first eight-processor Xeon machine based on new Intel chip technology.

Linux computer maker VA Research aims to erase the traditional lag between when new hardware is introduced and when Linux-based machines take advantage of it. But when VA ships its servers based around Xeon processors and the elusive Profusion chipset next month, it looks like the company will overshoot the mark. It won't merely be catching up to competitors, but will be ahead of them.

VA expects its first eight-way servers to begin selling in mid-April, chief executive Larry Augustin said. That's months before the mainstream competition.

In contrast, IBM plans to begin selling its servers in June, Hewlett-Packard says second or third quarter, and Compaq says its eight-way servers will be available only in the second quarter. Even Dell, traditionally a vendor quickest out of the gates with new Intel technology, doesn't expect its systems until summer.

Intel's high-end Xeon chips already can be grouped together in gangs of four, but Intel's upcoming "Profusion" chip set doubles the processor count, allowing two groups of four Xeons inside the same box to share the memory and input-output system.

Intel has invested in VA Research, a Mountain View, California, company as part of an effort to make sure lots of operating systems run on its chips.

Linux is a variant of the Unix operating system built from the ground up by Linus Torvalds and hundreds of other programmers. It's available for free or low cost, and many big-name companies--including HP, IBM, Compaq, and Dell--are beginning to offer support for Linux systems.

The Linux head start is interesting in light of the fact that IBM and Compaq both have helped Intel with the Profusion chipset. While Compaq designed the input-output chip design, IBM lent a hand with gate array technology.

VA has done its own work with Profusion, though, such as writing operating system patches that let Linux use Profusion, Augustin said. VA also has tweaked Linux so it can talk to a 2-terabyte storage system. Those patches have been released to the open source community, he added.

The Linux systems are well able to handle the new processors, he added. For example, serving up Web pages or running file and print services for Windows networks are tasks that "scale beautifully," Augustin said.

Dell, which ties its products to high-volume demand, is comfortable with its eight-processor server rollout schedule. "We plan to make sure products are available and ready when there's a volume market for eight-way servers," said spokesman Jim Mazzola. "Summer is sufficient for now."

Server makers, such as Sequent, already are selling Xeon servers that contain eight, 12, and 32 processors. HP, too, sells an eight-processor system using the older Pentium Pro chip. These systems, however, are based on specialized architectures. The Profusion chipset will allow server vendors to build systems with standard parts, thereby lowering the price.

Profusion has been delayed a number of times. Originally due in late 1998, the chipset won't appear in volume until the second quarter, said Intel's Paul Otellini. Part of the delay has come about to perform testing and validation, he said.

Eight-way server shipments are expected to begin in the third quarter, Intel said this week.

The eight-processor systems are Intel's step in its push to edge into ever more powerful systems. Another key part of that strategy is building Intel support for high-powered operating systems such as various versions of Unix, particularly for Intel's forthcoming 64-bit chips.