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VA Research on a Linux mission

Linux's rising fame has carried the small company to new heights but has also brought new competition from some larger Johnny-come-latelys.

The increasing popularity of Linux is a two-edged sword for VA Research, a company that has been selling Linux computer systems since 1993.

Linux's fame is a rising tide that has carried Linux system maker VA Research to new heights: The company has tripled in size from 15 employees last year to 45 today. But the popularity of Linux also has drawn the attention of much bigger computer makers such as Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems, which have taken their first tentative steps to support the Unix-like operating system.

VA Research chief executive Larry Augustin, though, is confident his Mountain View, California, company can survive the competitive onslaught because of his company's close ties to the Linux developer community and the fact that its hardware is tuned specifically for Linux instead of some other operating system.

And unlike some of the big-name players now getting into the upstart operating system, VA Research handles technical support all by itself. HP, by contrast, will refer operating system technical support calls to Linux distributor Red Hat.

"Who do you want to get [Linux computers] from? People who designed hardware to run Windows first and who qualified Linux second, or from guys who designed the system from the ground up to run Linux and developers who wrote the Linux code?" asked Augustin.

VA Research, for example, picks hardware such as disk drives or network adapters that work well with Linux and writes drivers to make sure.

The growing recognition by mainstream vendors will just boost VA Research. "I think it's great for us in terms of credibility," he said.

VA Research got its start when Augustin built a Linux machine in 1993 for $2,000 that was comparable to a Sun workstation that was stripped down but still cost $7,000. His system was one-and-a-half times faster, and people started sending him money for their own Linux systems. In November 1993, he put up a Web page selling his wares, and a year later, the Linux business was a full-time job for three people.

The company got its start in universities and software development areas, but has moved into Internet service provider businesses like Web hosting at Exodus. And using the Samba software, VA Systems' machines serving up files to Windows users work four times faster than Windows NT machines using the same hardware, he said.

VA Research customers include Bayer, Southwestern Bell, and McGraw-Hill.

The company sells machines using Intel chips, running from inexpensive desktops, through higher-powered workstations, and including four-processor servers. A four-Xeon system at 450 MHz with big memory caches, 2 gigabytes of RAM, and 45 gigabytes of hard disk space costs nearly $50,000.

The systems always come with Linux, but VA Research sometimes sets them up to dual-boot with other operating systems as well.

Pushing Linux higher
VA Research sees a future for Linux pushing up into heavier-duty servers. The new Linux kernel, version 2.2, has much better support for multiple-processor machines, he said, and VA Research will add 8-processor versions to its product stable by the end of the year, he said.

Although Augustin praised the collective programming effort that has refined Linux to its current state, he said the programming technique has its limits. The average programmer just doesn't have access to terabyte-sized storage hardware or huge multiprocessor systems, he said.

To make sure the Linux programming culture can be sustained into these lofty realms of big servers, VA Research essentially subsidizes such work by paying for its own Linux development effort and by giving outsiders access to VA Research hardware, he said.

"The whole Linux development model is one of the key reasons Linux has been so successful. All these people out there want to change the world," and programmers are motivated to contribute to the collective effort by the recognition that comes from their peers, he said. "Part of our job is to make it possible for them to do that. We want them to be able to work on interesting features they can't as an individual."

New board
VA Research announced today the members of its board of directors. Among them is Doug Leone, a senior partner of venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, which invested in VA Research in October 1998, Augustin said.

Another member is Eric Raymond, an open source developer and the author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, a now-famous paper describing the merits of open source programming.

Carl Redfield, senior vice president of Cisco Systems and Jeff Allen, vice president of finance and operations at Network Appliance also are on the board.

"We're a Linux company. We want Linux all the way up to the board of directors," Augustin said.