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Motorola promises ultra-reliable Linux servers

The hardware giant will try to bring Linux to one of its most demanding corporate computing markets yet: the telecommunications industry.

Motorola will try to bring Linux to one of its most demanding corporate computing markets yet: the telecommunications industry.

Motorola said today it will come out in May with Linux servers for telecommunications that will be guaranteed to stay up 99.999 percent of the time--all but five minutes of the year. This level of availability is possible because CPUs, fans, power supplies and cards will be plugged into PCI slots. Computer center managers, therefore, will be able to remove and add them without having to shut the computer down, Motorola said.

Swapping CPUs while a system is running is notoriously tricky and a major improvement for Linux. To accomplish the task, Motorola has created its own add-in card that negotiates the technical issues in a "hot-swap," as the process is known, said David Peters, director of strategic alliances at the Motorola computing group. Motorola currently makes a series of more standard server appliances but generally makes them on behalf of other companies, which market them under their own name.

Telecommunications companies, disdainful of computers that crash, would be a powerful new segment of customers for Linux. Two years ago, the open-source operating system had almost no foothold in the mainstream computing industry. Since then, it has spread to the traditional server market and now is making its way into more specialized segments. As companies have embraced Linux, they have added their hardware and software design expertise to the largely voluntary effort that had been responsible for Linux development.

But Linux, still a relative newcomer in the computing industry, is likely to be used chiefly for pilot projects initially, especially in the telecommunications area. The operating system is in constant flux as programmers add new features and patch bugs.

The upcoming Motorola servers will put pressure on several companies, including Compaq, which expanded its presence in telecommunications when it bought Digital. Sun Microsystems is in the midst of a major push into the telecommunications market as well. Sun introduced a server for the telecommunications market with a 99.999 percent uptime guarantee (also sometimes called "five 'nines' reliability") more than a year ago.

Motorola is confident there's a market for Linux, though. In August, Motorola customers had 50 Linux projects under way. By the end of the year, that number had risen to 250, Peters said.

"We think (Linux) has reached a very reliable state. It was pulled from us by customers, as opposed to us pushing it," he said.

Motorola expects the high-availability servers to be used deep within the telecommunications infrastructure for special-purpose tasks such as gatekeepers, call servers and home location registers, Peters said. The new server complies with the Network Equipment Building Systems (NEBS) standard, a key requirement for the telecommunications market. Start-up Linux hardware companies such as VA Linux Systems, which boasts of expertise with the relatively young operating system, also plan to compete in the market.

Natural MicroSystems will use the Motorola Linux systems with its own call-handling hardware, the company said.

Motorola embarked on a Linux course in 1999, announcing it would use Caldera Systems' OpenLinux to power small special-purpose servers designed to be used for tasks such as delivering Web pages, stashing information around the Internet for faster data transfer or setting up encrypted communications channels.

Motorola also offers services for its Linux-based machines, including 24-hour technical support and custom design work to tie its own computers with other hardware and software, Peters said.

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Linux is a clone of Unix, but unlike commercial versions of Unix from Sun and others, the original Linux programming instructions are available for anyone to modify and redistribute. Linux also competes with Microsoft Windows.

The high-availability servers themselves already can be bought with other operating systems, such as the Lynx OS, but the Linux versions are expected to be "significantly less expensive," Peters said.

While some argue that proprietary operating systems are more mature than Linux, the creators of those OSes are hedging their bets. Lynx, for example, is at work on a version of Linux called Blue Cat for "embedded" devices, typically special-purpose computers lacking the general-purpose abilities of traditional servers or PCs.