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Niche Linux servers break out of HPC into enterprise

Watch out, IBM, Dell and HP! Linux server vendors that have carved out a space in high-performance computing markets are taking their tailor-made servers into new enterprise markets, providing a welcomed change for businesses that want to save money and get customized products.

Leveraging Linux and niche customization, a group of independent server vendors are going head to head with market-dominating server vendors, such as IBM, HP and Dell. Small server vendors like Penguin Computing, Linux Networx, Pogo Linux and Fabric7 Systems have gained headway where Microsoft Windows doesn't play so well: in markets historically dominated by Unix boxes and mainframes.

Once relegated to scientific markets, these vendors are branching out. Their new ventures into enterprise computing and successes in high-performance computing (HPC) markets are covered in this report.

Advancements in Linux server technology over the next five years will result in 12% growth and achieving 21% market share by 2010, according to George Weiss, a distinguished analyst for Gartner Inc.

"There is tremendous market opportunity in the Linux server industry for startups who can fill a niche," said Weiss. "The key will be for these startups to show that there is a real cost benefit to Linux over Windows and Unix."

According to Weiss, these niches can be found by using Linux to engineer server systems to be more efficient and less complex than their Unix counterparts.

Fabric7 Linux application servers

One company that is following Weiss' prescription is Fabric7 Systems Inc., a Mountain View, Calif., startup launched in November 2005. The company is targeting the enterprise market with flexible, application-focused servers running Linux. President and CEO Sharad Mehrotra sees Linux and Windows eventually driving Unix out of the server market and cites the former operating systems' flexibility and scalability as the key to building more simple enterprise server systems.

"Mission-critical systems are remaining on Unix for the time being, but Fabric7 is pushing across this boundary with our Linux boxes. We're trying to drive this market transition," Mehrotra said.

Magma Design Automation Inc., a semiconductor design company, uses Fabric7's Linux systems to run its CAD software. Fabric7 servers' enterprise-like functionality -- such as large memory (120 GB per system) and scalable 16-way multiprocessor design -- allows engineers to work with large design files rather than having to split up the drawings into separate file blocks. This streamlines the design process and reduces time to market.

Fabric7 uses new 64-bit chips, the Linux kernel and advances in input-output technology to build server systems that are just as powerful as some Unix systems and are priced at a fraction of the cost, according to Mehrotra.

Penguin taps server virtualization market

Penguin Computing Inc., a San Francisco-based Linux specialist, is expanding beyond its high-performance computing space to develop other enterprise server solutions on the Linux platform, including rack, blade and workstation systems. Server virtualization technologies are a top focus for Penguin's Scyld Software division.

Penguin's first focus was customers who had high-end performance needs but a lack of IT manpower. Penguin engineers were able to leverage the open source Linux kernel to make the vendor's server clusters easier to deploy, manage and scale.

A simple clustering solution that requires little monitoring and management, Penguin's Scyld Beowulf clustering software simplifies the provisioning and management of nodes in a cluster and makes thousands of nodes appear as one system. Updating software, provisioning computing resources and loading security patches can be done centrally rather than thousands of times over.

"Our customers … tell us all the time that they are able to manage their server clusters by themselves with limited training," said Pauline Nist, senior vice president of product development and management for Penguin.

"We purchased hardware from Penguin Computing [because] its system engineering appeared to be the most robust," said Joe Oefelein, a senior member of Sandia National Laboratories. "We chose Scyld Beowulf because it is easier to use [than other options] and offered us a turnkey solution. The time I need to manage the cluster is truly minimal."

According to Don Becker, Scyld CTO, this clustering solution is Penguin's key to entering the enterprise market, where server virtualization makes management and systems monitoring difficult.

"This single point of administration ultimately increases the simplicity of running complicated systems while reducing the cost of ownership a great deal. This is what enterprises are looking for and need," Becker said.

Another Penguin customer, the city of Kenosha, Wis., has used Linux for nearly a decade. Ruth Schall, director of MIS, estimates that using open source saves the city more than $100,000 per year. She attributes the cost savings to the simplified management and monitoring functionality provided by Kenosha's Penguin Linux server environment that runs the city's DNS, Web and email applications at city hall and in several remote sites around town.

The new S in supercomputing is storage

Linux Networx is now focusing on another market traditionally dominated by the larger vendors: supercomputing. Within that marketplace, however, Linux Networx has another niche: storage. Last week, the company introduced storage products for extreme performance supercomputing systems and for workstation production systems. Linux Networx' new storage products were built by integrating Linux, IBM's General Parallel File System (GPFS) and supercomputer hardware.

The Linux supercomputing company is coming off a "super" 2005, claiming that it finished the year with a 300% booking backlog over 2004 and has added new customers such as BMW, DaimlerChrysler, Audi, Glaxo SmithKline and Motorola, among others. Linux Networx has a base of 150 customers.

Pogo Linux doesn't limit itself

Pogo Linux Inc. is a niche company with a broad market scope. It develops customized servers, storage and workstations on the Linux platform, but aims at every level of the marketplace, from single-processor OEM agreements to enterprise servers and clusters. Like Fabric7, Penguin and Linux Networx, Pogo Linux is using open source technology to simplify system architecture and develop high-performing hardware at an affordable price.

"Performance is pretty good on Linux, but flexibility really is the key benefit. It gives you the freedom to develop on an open platform," said Erik Logan, CTO of Pogo Linux. "Most customers cannot deploy a cookie-cutter solution. Linux provides that customization."

More on this topic:

Clusters past and present

Server room menu

For many users of Linux-based servers, Red Hat licensing fees can cancel out any cost savings over Windows, says Logan. Pogo Linux is able to provide enterprise Linux without licensing fees by leveraging a service by CentOS, a community of developers that has stripped the Red Hat kernel of any branding and trademarks and distributes the powerful operating system free on its Web site. The company is able to do this under trademark laws because Red Hat's operating system is open source, and companies like Pogo Linux have free access to an enterprise open source platform.

Whether a niche server comes with the Red Hat, SuSE or CentOS license, lower costs are still a key benefit of using Linux, says Logan, because it's a malleable, lock-in free operating system that is supported by an active community.

Weiss sees tremendous opportunity for niche vendors that leverage the cost and speedy development model of Linux and open source. As they branch out from HPC, they'll make inroads into the midrange and enterprise markets by innovating in such niches as server virtualization, systems management and application-specific servers.

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