IBM expands file sharing tool

Big Blue will begin selling a version of the AFS file system that adds support for Linux and Windows NT platforms.

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IBM will begin selling a version of a program that lets Unix computers share files for the Linux and Windows NT platforms beginning December 1.

The AFS file system is a program that lightens some of the burden of storing and sharing computer files that many users need to access. For example, it frees users from having to know which particular server computer is storing a file, lets several different computer platforms use the files, and lets administrators control different users' access to the files, said Gail Koerner of IBM's Transarc subsidiary.

Until now, the AFS server product only ran on Unix systems, but the new edition, version 3.5, will be able to run on Windows NT machines and Linux machines, she said. In addition, version 3.5 comes with Control Center software that uses a graphical user interface that runs on Windows machine, which makes the program easier for less experienced administrators who don't want to use a command-line interface of traditional Unix machines.

Koerner said IBM added Linux support because of demand from large corporate customers spread across the globe, although she declined to mention any by name. When IBM looked at the issue in the spring of this year, more than half the requests for a Linux version were from corporate users, she said.

And porting AFS to Linux from other Unix versions was relatively simple, she said, taking only a few months. Linux, a free operating system based on Unix, is gaining support in corporate computing environments.

"I applaud them for jumping into the market," said Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst with International Data Corporation. "It's another piece, a foundation stone, for Linux becoming a commercial, mainstream operating system."

Transarc's AFS product is well-known as software that's part of the "infrastructure" of an organization, letting lots of different systems share information with each other, Kusnetsky said.

Although AFS will likely run on several different versions of Linux, IBM has given its stamp of approval to the Linux distribution by Red Hat, Koerner said.

"It seemed to be the most popular in the customer base," she said. "We had to pick one to start, and [Red Hat] seemed to be the best decision at that point."

IDC analyst Bill Peterson said that making files transparent to end users is important in organizations using lots of different operating systems.

"These tools will be important in the next couple of years," he said, particularly as Windows NT makes its way into companies with Unix servers.

Microsoft has an add-on pack for Windows NT that lets it share files more easily with Unix systems that use the NFS system, Peterson noted.

AFS, however, goes one step further by freeing users from having to know exactly which server a file is stored on, Koerner said. Because AFS uses a central database to keep track of the locations of all its files, system administrators can easily add new servers or storage and move files around without leaving users confused.

The Linux and NT versions of the AFS Server will cost less than the versions for the Unix operating systems, she said--$1,995 per server instead of the $4,995 price for servers running Solaris, Digital Unix, Irix, HP-UX, or AIX. AFS Client, the version of the program that lets users access files stored with AFS Server, costs $99 per user.

Alternatively, for those who want to use AFS Server to deliver Web pages to a potentially vast number of clients, a Web version of the software costs $6,495 per machine, Koerner said.

The new version of AFS Server is about three to five times faster than its predecessor, Koerner said.

Transarc's AFS software has its roots in the Andrew File System originally developed at Carnegie Mellon University, Koerner said. Transarc commercialized it in the early 1990s, and IBM bought Transarc in 1994.