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Commentary: New kernel to bring Linux to enterprise forefront expert Ken Milberg digs under the hood of the upcoming 2.6 Linux kernel and examines the benefits and opportunities it presents for Linux in the enterprise.

The Linux 2.6 kernel. You've heard a lot about it, but what's actually there? Is this just another release, or is it a breakthrough that could take Linux to new heights?

Linux has certainly come of age since the time that people did not think it was a scalable OS that could really compete with Unix. For years, people would say Linux was fine for a Web server, but not for a database server. "If you really want a reliable, scalable multi-user OS, you need to buy Unix," they said. You've heard all this before, right? Well, you won't have to hear it again. This release will only break down more doors in the effort to bring Linux to the forefront.

What improvements does Linux 2.6 have? What doesn't it have? This release provides Linux with the unique opportunity to show it can handle mission-critical enterprise functions and scale with them. The 2.6 kernel has improvements in virtual memory, CPU performance (including scheduling and threading), file system, IPsec support, power management, device driver porting, and network file system, multimedia and wireless support, among other things.

So, why doesn't the whole world just get this thing? Senior management wants better management, availability, scalability, performance and cost, and this version should meet those requisites. Unlike previous versions, 2.6 was bred to run on larger, more powerful SMP systems. Because of this, it will scale better, and the opportunity will be there to replace expensive Unix servers with Linux machines.

So, what's under the hood of 2.6? Check out these hefty improvements:

  • Scalability: Linux people are getting tired of hearing that the open source OS does not scale as well as Unix, and here is the opportunity to actually show their Unix brethren that it can. With improvements to CPU, memory and I/O, there is no area that has not improved with the new release.
  • Memory support: Linux 2.6 will offer support for large memory, 16-terabyte long file systems and for 16-way systems. Testing is being done on 32-way systems and higher. Within the scheduler, there is enhanced efficiency. Processes can attach to one CPU, without moving around to multiple CPUs. The scheduler will also have the ability to decrease the priority of a process that may generate too much load. It will also provide for better 64-bit support on supportable block devices. The new kernel also provides a different way of achieving a type of multi-tasking called NUMA (non-uniform memory access), which connects memory and processor, increasing throughput and reducing memory contention.
  • Security: The 2.6 kernel provides support for IPsec protocols that will allow for cryptographic security. The support of IP security has actually been added to the kernel. With this feature, an IT manager now has the added comfort of security at the protocol level. Applications now do not have to be coded to allow for this improved level of security.
  • Networking: The new kernel has client/server support for the new NFS files systems, version 4 (NFSv4). The NFS Sever can now also support TCP in addition to UDP, which aids in overall reliability of NFS, since UDP is a connectionless protocol. Support for using NFS volumes as a root file system has also been approved, so Solaris users accustomed to doing this will be thrilled. With these features, IT managers now have a more reliable network operating system under the covers. As all of us who have lived the life of NFS know, when it is good, it is very good, but when it is bad, it can be so bad. NFS with TCP is great news for not only those of us that rely on NFS, but also for delivery managers that live by service-level agreements and need systems to stay up to meet deliverables.
  • File system: More improvements have been made to the Linux file systems, ext/ext3. They will have support for POSIX access control lists and support for JFS file systems, used in AIX. Access control lists give an administrator greater permissions control with the underlying operating systems. The NTFS driver was also rewritten, and now you can mount a volume read/write. I especially like the change that was made to allow individual directories to be marked synchronous. This should allow for better recovery in the event of disk crashes. With these features, IT managers will have file systems comparable in reliability to IBM's AIX. A speedier recovery means that systems will be up more often, which further adds to the argument of Linux being a real enterprise-wide OS. For those of us that remember the days when we didn't even have a journaled file system, the importance of file-system improvements cannot be understated.
  • Audio: Audio support has now reached 2.6, using ALSA (Advanced Linux Sound Architecture). The old system had lots of issues, and MP3 folks will be thrilled about this support. There is support for newer hardware (USB audio) and even webcams. Playing MP3 or other audio files on a desktop should be a quality experience. What this probably means to the IT manager (other then the fact they can now listen to their System Of A Down on their Linux machines), is that they can really impress their creative peers by showing them that, not only can Linux do the things that Unix can do in the enterprise, but it is now ready to start kicking down the Microsoft beast at the desktop. How better to do it than by showcasing some fun stuff that traditionally only Windows folk have been able to do?

If marketed correctly, this release could really take Linux to market leadership. Linux leaders -- particularly Red Hat -- need to jump on the 2.6 bandwagon as quickly as possible. They'll need to support it, improve it, market it and sell it. If some of the top Linux vendors offer some increased support and handholding to companies looking to migrate during this period, they could truly put Linux over the top.

With its bid to buy SuSE Linux AG, Novell is now in a unique position to be one of those companies. It has already tried several times (and also failed several times, it should be noted) to compete with Microsoft with products such as NetWare, UnixWare and WordPerfect. Perhaps, the fourth time will be a charm, and this time they seem to have possibly their best opportunity yet.

People are excited, and Novell's stock has almost doubled during the past month. Novell should bring the 2.6 kernel to SuSE as quickly as possible. For what it's worth, I believe this marriage could truly be a match in heaven. I am looking forward to seeing Novell learn from its mistakes and really push the new Linux release to new heights. expert Kenneth Milberg is president of and a Unix systems consultant at Unix Solutions.

FEEDBACK: Red Hat has said it would not include the 2.6 kernel in its enterprise Linux offering for 12 to 18 months. Is that too late for your company? Would you jump ship to Novell-SuSE if it offered a 2.6-based version of Linux first?
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