Tech Industry

SuSE makes a grab for Hammer

The company's got a lot on its plate--getting ready for AMD's forthcoming 64-bit chip and angling to fulfill the German parliament's mandate to equip its servers with Linux.

Gerhard Burtscher has a lot on his plate.

Not only did he accept the post of CEO at German Linux distributor SuSE in December, he also took on the management of five newly created business units.

High on Burtscher's to-do list is getting SuSE ready for Advanced Micro Devices' forthcoming 64-bit chip, Hammer. He is also balancing the needs of business clients with those of the sometimes-chaotic Linux and open-source communities. Last but not least, Burtscher is angling to make SuSE the company that fulfills the German parliament's mandate to equip its servers with Linux.

And then there's SuSE Linux 8. SuSE's Linux is currently available for free. Version 8 will be available from the company's Web site on April 22 with a basic cost of $49.95, SuSE said at the CeBit computer show in Germany.

Linux, a clone of Unix invented by Linus Torvalds and developed by a host of programmers worldwide, is relatively easy to move from one processor to another. Versions of Linux run on dozens of processors.

SuSE also plans to release by May a full-fledged version of its Linux software that supports the complete 64-bit abilities of IBM's stalwart mainframe computers, the company said. The software will be able to run both older 31-bit mainframe programs and newer 64-bit programs, which run faster.

SuSE's main rival, Raleigh N.C.-based Red Hat, is beta testing its own 64-bit version of Linux for mainframes. Red Hat spokeswoman Melissa London said the final version will be available in "the next two months or so."

SuSE is pushing to have its Hammer version of Linux ready in November, in time for the launch of Hammer late in the year, according to product manager Stefan Werden. "As soon as Hammer is officially available, our operating-system package will be too," he said.

SuSE and AMD announced plans to adapt version 2.6 of the Linux kernel for the x86-64 architecture in February, though SuSE developers on the project expect the changes will be rolled into the current kernel, 2.4.

Linux development groups have long supported the Hammer architecture, but SuSE hopes to get some additional marketing mileage from its AMD relationship. "We want to be the first Hammer (operating-system) platform," Burtscher explained.

So far, the move seems to be paying off. Two weeks ago, for example, AMD demonstrated a prototype Hammer chip running 64-bit SuSE Linux and 32-bit Windows.

Having an operating system that supports Hammer's 64-bit features is key to helping AMD gain support for the chip. It's a major divergence from the standard strategy AMD has pursued thus far: producing processors that speak the same language as Intel chips. Intel is going a different route to the world of 64-bit computing with its Itanium line of CPUs (central processing units).

So why didn't Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMD go with a U.S. Linux distributor? "AMD's decision to collaborate with us on Hammer is probably due to our reputation for German 'seriousness,'" said Burtscher. "They know how quickly and easily our distribution can be modified to suit various platforms," added product manager Werden.

SuSE, like many other commercial Linux distributors, remains critical of hard-core Linux advocates and of the Free Software Foundation, led by Richard Stallman. Stallman last summer criticized Caldera International CEO Ransom Love for the company's "parasitical" relationship to the open-source development community, and Burtscher expects a similar response to SuSE's decision to charge fees.

"I suppose the term 'license fees' alone must irritate certain puritans," Burtscher said. "We are enhancing Linux with additional services and asking money for it. Rightfully, too. No revenue, no client support."

The company also promotes its direct contributions to the Linux kernel and collaboration with developers on the KDE project, a graphical user interface for Linux.

Parliamentary backing
SuSE may soon have the opportunity to demonstrate Linux's stability and security by switching all of the German parliament's servers over to Linux, a change that still will allow clients to continue using Microsoft applications. A commission recently recommended that the move be made, basing its decision on an independent survey carried out for the German parliament.

SuSE is the hot favorite to deliver the new server. "Although this isn't a victory yet for SuSE, it is for Linux," proclaimed Burtscher. "We still need to go through the final phases of the application procedure and then wait for a final decision from the parliament's Altestenrat. We're hoping, of course. This means a lot to us."

SuSE Linux version 8 has several improvements from version 7.3, according to spokesman Christian Egle, including a completely new installation tool, YaST2.

Other main features of SuSE Linux 8 include: version 2.4.18 of the Linux kernel; version 3.0 of the KDE graphical user interface; version of 1.4.1 RC1 of the Gnome graphical user interface; better software for writing CDs; a new sound-card system; the KOffice suite of word processor, spreadsheet, and other office applications; a backup program; and a handful of games.

Dietmar Mueller reported from Germany.