HP tries Linux on for size

The upstart operating system has gained enough power that even Hewlett-Packard may fit it into its product plans.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
Linux has gained enough power in the commercial sphere that computing giant Hewlett-Packard is evaluating whether to fit the upstart operating system into its product plans, just as a new version of the increasingly popular software is readied.

HP has no firm plans at this point, but the company believes that it knows where products running Linux could fit into its product line and has been working on porting Linux to its PA-RISC-based computers, said Les Wilson, HP's director of HP-UX marketing.

"We do see a place for Linux in certain application areas," he said.

Linux won't ever threaten high-powered Unix versions such as HP-UX that can handle multiprocessing systems, Wilson said. But with its "small and sleek" kernel--the core of the operating system--and modest hardware requirements, it could be useful embedded into a "Web appliance," mail server, or firewall box that companies could plug into the network.

Linux's increasing presence in the corporate world also could be bolstered by an updated kernel, version 2.2, that improves support for multiprocessor systems and RAID, said Erik Troan, chief developer at Linux distributor Red Hat Software.

The 2.2 kernel likely will arrive in December or January, Troan said. It will replace the current release version, 2.0.35.

The improvements should make Linux a higher-performance operating system that's more attractive to people setting up servers for functions such as sharing files, running intranets, or setting up Internet sites. The new kernel also will increase the appeal to engineering users in research or educational markets, he added.

But Wilson said he believes that Linux today is like Java was two years ago: "An interesting technology, a lot of attention for six months, then it found its place in the market."

Linux will top out at its "high-water mark" in the commercial area soon, Wilson predicted, because the operating system doesn't have a formal support system and doesn't handle large-scale server computing tasks such as workload balancing or resource sharing. Linux won't get the support of major software vendors such as SAP, Baan, or PeopleSoft, he said.

If HP began selling products with Linux, it would become "more formal in our support," Wilson said, though declining to list specifics. He also said HP's "evaluation port" of Linux to its PA-RISC architecture works but still lacks a number of key device drivers and functions.

David Van Beveren of EIS Computers has enough confidence in Linux that he ships Linux servers based on Sun Microsystem's hardware. While he agrees that the 2.2 kernel will bolster the Linux position in the commercial areas, he believes that success rests on marketing momentum, not technical merits.

However, Van Beveren sees performance advantages to Linux compared to earlier versions of the venerable Unix operating system originally developed by AT&T's Bell Labs.

For one thing, Linux founder Linus Torvalds started fresh when he wrote Linux' new kernel, so he could benefit from what's been learned in the last 20-plus years. Another advantage: The people writing the Linux kernel today "are some of the brightest, most driven kernel developers in the world, who will just hammer on the code" until it's as fast and robust as possible, Van Beveren said. That level of dedication might be harder to find with programmers working their 9-to-5 jobs.

Troan sees Linux's increasing status in commercial markets as the most significant trend for the operating system these days.

Linux now has "support from the big boys," Troan said, pointing to announcements of Linux ports of database products from Oracle, IBM, Informix, Computer Associates, and Sybase. "In literally a month, Linux went from having no major databases to having all five."

Torvalds has final say on when the new kernel solid enough to be released, said Bodo Bauer, technical supervisor at S.u.S.E, another Linux distributor.

Bauer, who spoke with Torvalds at the recent ISPCON conference, said Torvalds has frozen the code on the developer version of the new kernel, meaning that no new features will be added and developers will focus on debugging the current set.

The improved support for symmetrical multiprocessing (SMP) is the most significant addition to the 2.2 kernel, Bauer and Troan said. SMP is an advanced architecture which allows computers to use many processors at once to perform tasks, thus speeding up performance.

Linux gained SMP support in the 2.0 kernel, Bauer said, but that support was very basic. The entire kernel was locked out during the time a processor was using it, so another processor often had to wait for it to become free. The new SMP support, though, lets a processor lock only certain sections of the kernel, leaving the other sections free and speeding overall performance.

The 2.0 kernel didn't give a computer much performance advantage jumping from two to four processors, but the 2.2 kernel will, Troan said.

Troan also said Linux will be improved by the support for RAID Level 5, which lets data be written across an array of hard disks. RAID 5 also writes parity information, which lets the computer system reconstruct missing data from a crashed hard disk. Linux offers a high-performance implementation that can automatically reconstruct the missing information in the background, Troan said.

The new 2.2 kernel will be incorporated into a new Red Hat Linux release, version 6.0, Troan said. However, Red Hat will let the 2.2 kernel "ripen" for a couple months to iron out bugs before shipping version 6.0.

Van Beveren ships systems with a 64-bit version of Linux called UltraLinux for the Sun's Sparc platform. That 64-bit version allows a vast memory address space, he said.