Linux is only option for standardisation

Virtualisation could transform the way companies deploy and manage their computer resources but to succeed it will need a...

Virtualisation could transform the way companies deploy and manage their computer resources but to succeed it will need a standard operating system.

In the past five years companies have been buying servers in an ad hoc manner, deploying them on a one server per application basis.

Consequently, many companies have assembled large server farms, which have an average hardware utilisation of 20% or worse. This is a waste of money and a management headache.

The corporate infrastructure initiatives from IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and Oracle are all quite similar and aim to virtualise the hardware layer of corporate computer infrastructure.

Virtualisation allows an application to access a pool of hardware resources that are always on tap. In this way, users no longer need to buy one server per application. Storage virtualisation allows a user to access data in a standard way, irrespective of whether data is stored on disc or tape.

However, there are other strong motivations for adopting virtualisation, particularly the idea of being able to provide computer resource as a service, dynamically. In other words, you pay for what you use and you get what you need when you need it - utility computing.

So companies, especially large corporates, are receptive to the idea of having computer resources that are managed, efficient and outsourced to some degree - which is what IBM, HP, Sun, and Oracle are talking about when they refer to "grid", "utility" and "on-demand" computing. Right now, what can be delivered does not amount to wall-to-wall virtualisation, or anything like it.

So the question is: how is it ever going to be delivered, given legacy systems, existing server farms and the enormous difficulty involved in relocating applications in a heterogeneous network? Blade technology, grid computing, automatic provisioning, storage area networks and network attached storage will play a part in this, but for it to work, and work well, it will require a standard operating system.

This is a little like the idea of Java (write once, run anywhere), but Java was about downloading applets. This is about moving whole applications around. There is only one operating system that could fill this role: Linux.

Linux is very popular and fast becoming the dominant server operating system. Analyst firm IDC has predicted that this year the number of new Linux servers will equal or possibly surpass the number of new Windows 2000 servers.

Linux is also attracting large corporations. This year, Reuters chose to put its Market Data System on Linux, Ford moved to Linux with a series of server purchases, and there are reports that Unilever is doing the same. These are strategic purchases from big companies.

To this we can add the fact that many governments are showing an interest in Linux. There are several reasons for this. One is that open source is a guarantee against buried "espionage software". Open source is also relatively cheap.

If you look around the world, China has its own version - Red Flag Linux - and Malaysia is following in its path. Other Linux proponents include Brazil, Japan, Peru, Korea, Pakistan, India, Germany and Spain.

Another plus for Linux is that it runs in many different contexts and on many platforms - from embedded systems and small palm-top devices up to IBM's zSeries mainframe. It also runs on just about every 32-bit or 64-bit chip and has become the developer's platform of choice. It is the only operating system that has such a broad penetration of the processor and server market.

Because it does not belong to anyone, if Linux becomes the standard operating system, then no specific supplier gets an advantage from it and all suppliers can choose to embrace it without worrying that the next release is going to poison their business.

So in respect of virtualisation of computer hardware, the idea is starting to emerge that you virtualise storage by using storage area networks and network-attached storage, and you virtualise server hardware by using Linux - making it feasible to switch applications from one server to another automatically and quickly.

Within this capability you can cater for failover and make highly efficient use of resources. However, for most applications you will need a standard operating system, because you cannot just pick applications up and move them from one environment to another without recompiling, unless the two environments are very similar.

The need for a standard operating system becomes clear when you consider why and how TCP/IP became the standard that enabled the internet. It did not happen because it was the best option or because it was purpose designed to run a worldwide network with hundreds of millions of nodes, it was not.

It happened because it was the only reasonable choice at the time. The same is now true of Linux as regards hardware virtualisation. Irrespective of its other qualities, it is the only candidate that fits the bill. If we are going to have a worldwide network that behaves as a resource utility, then a standardisation of this kind is both desirable and inevitable.

Linux does not solve all the problems of server virtualisation - and there are many, including legacy hardware that will never run Linux and legacy applications that will never run on Linux. But this does not matter. They will get excluded from virtualisation and will be superseded. Also, if Linux is thrust into this role then the open source community will inevitably work on making it even more fit for purpose.

As for other versions of Unix, and other operating systems, they can probably accommodate a Linux personality, both for the purposes of hardware virtualisation and because they will need to stay relevant. Ironically, this capability has already been demonstrated by SCO, which offers a Linux Kernel Personality within its version of Unix, so it can run Linux applications. Both Solaris, from Sun, and AIX, from IBM, have this capability too.

I believe Linux is set to become the standard operating system and as it does it will radically change the way corporations deploy computer infrastructure. Indeed, it will change whole market for server hardware.

Robin Bloor is chief executive of Bloor Research

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