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Linux sends NASA rovers to Mars, among other things

When the Mars rovers blasted into space nearly two years ago on a multimillion-mile voyage to the Red Planet, Linux was there to help them get off the ground.

When the Mars rovers blasted into space to begin a 60-million mile journey to the Red Planet, Linux was there to help NASA get them off the ground.

In fact, some form of Linux has been present at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., for years, assisting researchers with projects that range from unmanned space flight to deep space exploration.

Even more amazing perhaps than multimillion-mile journeys through space is that on many of the desktops within the lab, Linux is the preferred operating system.

At the JPL, it is common to see Red Hat Inc., SuSE or Mandriva Linux running on users' desktops alongside Windows.

To Gary Brack, the group leader for real-time systems at the JPL, this is how things should be. Brack said the lab is not centrally managed and therefore lends itself well to using a mix of varied operating systems. Aside from Windows and several flavors of Linux, the lab also runs HP Unix, Mac OS and Solaris, he said.

Our personal view is that Linux, period, is only for the desktop. We don't run our main servers on Linux, because there are too many flaws in main Linux kernel.
Gary Brack
Group Leader, real time systemsNASA Jet Propulsion Lab

In Brack's group however, the name of the game is exclusively Mandriva Linux. In fact, it should be noted that this Mandriva deployment is the largest in the world.

"In terms of [Linux] distros for the overall lab though, we actually run more Red Hat Linux," Brack said. But, regardless, that's still a lot of Linux on the desktop.

Years ago, he added, his team started with Mandriva -- which was known as Mandrake at the time -- and has stayed with it because there simply has not been a good reason to switch.

"It's history," Brack said. "When we first started looking at a Linux distro, we evaluated a number of different platforms, and the users preferred Mandrake.

"Both Mandrake and Red Hat would have met our needs, because they were both optimized around the Pentium platform rather than the 386 at that time. But we eventually made the decision that we wouldn't be supporting two different distros in our area unless there was sufficient funding for it," he said.

When Mandriva Linux was selected almost five years ago, Brack's team didn't give the OS a free ride just because it was Linux.

The team aggressively pushed the automated installation features as far as they could go because it is the core philosophy of the JPL IT requirements that an OS be installed as quickly as possible while still customizing the desktops to individual users.

An unorthodox approach to Linux

Brack's high opinion of Linux on the desktop may be out of the norm, but his stance on Linux on the server is even more so: He doesn't believe in it at all.

"Our personal view is that Linux, period, is only for the desktop. We don't run our main servers on Linux, because there are too many flaws in main Linux kernel," he said.

Brack's team instead runs Sun Solaris 8 for its main servers. He cited the OS's more stable, reliable, and longer lifecycle as one of the key reasons for this deployment.

Supporters of Linux on the server may argue that these are similar traits enjoyed by -- if not pioneered by -- Linux. Nevertheless, Brack said there are already plans to upgrade to Solaris 10 in the near future.

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"For the last six years we've been at Solaris 8, and we are traditionally a Solaris shop," he said. He added that the OpenSolaris project, which saw Sun open the source code to Solaris 10, did not have any bearing on the decision to upgrade to Solaris 10.

Overcoming latent problems in a Linux distro

With Linux so widespread on the desktop environment at the JPL, there were bound to be some challenges associated with the deployment.

Brack said that whenever a new release of Mandriva Linux arrived, his team would find that there usually had been insufficient testing, which then resulted in device driver problems. His team would then have to go into the Linux source code and dig around "by hand" to fix the device driver configuration problems.

Those problems existed in version 7.1 and were fixed for the most part nearly four years ago with the release of newer versions, but today there is a new host of issues that Brack must address.

"Now the big problem is when new hardware comes out and getting it recognized by the auto-install program," he said. "Often we'll have to go in and tweak things inside the OS, but, to be fair, Windows has the exact same problems.

"It is almost inherent in any OS running on a PC platform period. Mac and Sun don't have such problems because of the limited hardware that is available," Brack said.

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