Universities, government labs and researchers have linked Linux servers for years to reduce costs associated with high-performance computing tasks and the expensive servers that often go with them. Now a number of companies are considering Linux clusters as an alternative to Unix.
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Although Linux does not scale well for all jobs, those tasks that can be divided up into small pieces work well in clusters.
This early work has paved the way for IBM, Dell, Oracle and a host of smaller players to develop more modest clusters to run databases and other common business applications.
"The whole Oracle 9i RAC [real application clusters] environment feels a lot like where HPCC [high-performance computing clusters] was a year and a half or two years ago," said Dell chief technology officer Randy Groves.
"There have been some key customers trying out deployments, and it will be natural for that to start snowballing this year."
Once a company has experience with a Linux cluster that conducts technical computing tasks, they are more open to the idea of extending the technology into other parts of their datacentres.
"What we are seeing is an extension of the technical computing market into the commercial space," said IDC analyst John Humphries.
Dell and IBM have made it easier for enterprises to move to Linux clusters by offering preconfigured packages of particular server and software combinations.
Picking a Linux cluster to run Oracle, for example, can come with many of the obvious benefits often tied to Linux. Customers could hook together a number of relatively powerful but low-cost Intel-based servers all running an inexpensive operating system.
If a server failed or the company needed to expand its network, the price of adding new servers could cost far less than adding a new symmetric multiprocessing Unix system.
Oracle, IBM, Red Hat, and SuSE are all releasing code to the open-source community while pushing for higher end features in the Linux kernel. Software makers Veritas and Polyserve are rolling out improved file systems and management tools for clusters. Even Sun Microsystems, a longtime Linux holdout, plans to make its Sun Cluster software available for Linux.
But running demanding business software on an immature operating system and on 32-bit processors still has its costs compared with higher-end platforms offered by the Unix crowd, and analysts warn that Linux clusters will take time to catch on in corporate environments.
"You will see some early adoption of Oracle 9i RAC and DB2 Linux clusters for certain types of database applications," said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff.