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Red Hat upgrade backs IBM Intel server

The leading Linux seller quietly releases an updated version of its Advanced Server product that adds support for Big Blue's x440 server, an important expansion for both companies.

Leading Linux seller Red Hat quietly released an updated version of its Advanced Server product last week that adds support for IBM's x440 server, an important expansion for both companies.

The update to version 2.1 of Red Hat Advanced Server, distributed Thursday and Friday of last week, also was the first in a new plan to release updates once per quarter, company spokeswoman Leigh Day said Tuesday. Red Hat is becoming increasingly aggressive in steering customers and business partners to the premium product instead of its Professional and Personal editions, which can be downloaded for free.

IBM has sold Intel servers for years, but its x440 line, which supports as many as 16 Intel Xeon processors, is Big Blue's first in-house design. The product will be expanded later in 2003 to support as many as 32 Xeon processors, while a version with Itanium processors called the x450 is expected in coming weeks.

All major server sellers, including longtime holdout Sun Microsystems, now back Linux for its server lines. But IBM is the most aggressive, pushing Linux not only for its Intel-based xSeries line but also for its three other lines that use the company's own processors.

Sun, Hewlett-Packard and Dell Computer advocate Linux only for their Intel-based servers. Multiple companies, including SGI and NEC, are working to improve Linux for mammoth servers with dozens of processors.

Although IBM has high hopes for multiprocessor Xeon systems, Big Blue has been cooling toward Intel's Itanium processor, said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff. IBM canceled a plan to release its own AIX version of Unix for Itanium servers and recently transferred a handful of programmers working on Linux for Itanium to work on Linux for IBM's Power server processors.

"IBM is starting to cross the line between 'We're not necessarily Itanium's biggest supporter' to 'We're not really convinced Itanium has a role at IBM,'" Haff said.

Red Hat sells Advanced Server as a $2,500-per-year subscription that includes access to the Red Hat Network management service, but the new quarterly update cycle reinforces the company's idea that customers are buying not a single software package but rather a constantly adapting product.

Red Hat isn't alone. Sun, the dominant seller of Unix servers, releases updates to its Solaris version of Unix quarterly. And Microsoft has been trying, with some resistance, to move customers toward a subscription payment model.

Red Hat has said it expects more than 80 percent of its Advanced Server subscribers to sign up for another year.

Other Red Hat improvements
The new Advanced Server version also supports "Tiger," the Intel kits for building servers with four Itanium 2 processors, Day said. Intel said more than 15 companies--none top-tier server makers--ship Itanium servers using the Tiger parts.

In addition, Red Hat said the updated Advanced Server has a better virtual memory system--the part of the operating system that determines what information is stored in memory and what has to be pushed off to be stored on comparatively slow hard drives.

Red Hat programmers did the work on the virtual memory system, changes that will benefit users of Oracle's database software in particular, Day said.

Virtual memory systems are tricky to design well, said Tim Witham, director of the Open Source Development Lab, a multicompany effort to improve Linux for higher-end servers. And the virtual memory system must adapt as Linux expands to high-end servers running databases, he said.

"There are some very different usage models as you move from primarily developers and Web servers into database servers and application servers," Witham said.