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The Supercomputing '98 conference is next week. For many years supercomputing has been the realm of "big iron"; one of the last remaining holdouts of the mainframe priesthood. To a great extent it is still that way; an awful lot of people will tell you that the only way to solve a great many problems is with multi-million dollar vector supercomputers enclosed in glass rooms with white-coated attendants.
Some of these people may be surprised next week. A look at the Extreme Linux guide to Supercomputing '98 shows that Linux and Beowulf will be there in force. Events include a panel session on Friday, the 13th, entitled "Clusters, Extreme Linux, and NT" with Jon "Maddog" Hall as one of the panelists. There will be a number of Linux-interested vendors there, include Paralogic and Alta Technology(sellers of pre-built Beowulfs), the Portland Group(high-performance compilers) and Compaq. Look for quite a few exhibits from users of Linux-based clusters, including one displaywith over 160 nodes.
As an example of the sorts of results that will be shown, check out this paper about the TERRA earth model, which runs on a Beowulf cluster.
The world has only begun to see what these clusters can do. A Beowulf system provides a level of performance and price that are unmatched anywhere. The "big iron" looks like more of a dinosaur every day.
Nonetheless, Beowulf systems still have a long way to go before they can really reach their potential. The software is still relatively primitive, and requires a fair amount of work on the part of the user. There is not much in the way of commercial software available yet for Beowulfs; when products like Oracle's Parallel Server are ported Beowulf's will be useful to a larger class of users. But what's really needed is software and systems support to make a cluster truly seem like "one big computer" to most users. That means load balancing, process migration, etc. Projects like MOSIX are heading in the right direction; we wish them luck. This is an area that Linux should absolutely dominate.
The Halloween Memo. If you have not yet read Microsoft's memo on open source software with Eric S. Raymond's annotations you really should do that now. It is long, but it repays the effort required to push through it. While it is likely true that the document does not represent exactly the position of Microsoft as a whole, it is nonetheless a revealing look at how they look at open source, and how they may react to it. The beast is now awake, and can be expected to act.
Readers of the memo may be struck by the character of Raymond's annotations, which turn the whole thing into an anti-Microsoft strategy study. There is much talk of "exploitable weaknesses" and such in Microsoft's approach. Not everybody sees Microsoft as being even relevant to their lives, and many do not think that Linux needs to be part of a head-on charge against Microsoft. But it seems clear that, at this point, the battle is going to happen. Microsoft sees a threat, and will act against it. It is right to think about how to approach this battle, lest Linux somehow end up being relegated back to a marginal role.
(Along these lines, one of the suggested tactics in the memo is to hire away the best Linux developers. Given that, it is interesting that Microsoft apparently tried to hire Alan Cox a few days ago. One hopes he was not too tempted.)
Some have suggested that the memo was planted deliberately. Certainly the timing of the event (during the antitrust trial) and the speed with which Microsoft acknowledged the veracity of the memo point in that direction. It seems unlikely, however. A planted memo would have revealed less damaging information (i.e. "de-commoditizing protocols"). They probably did not intend for this one to get out.
The best source for information is the document itself, along with Eric's annotations. This week's press page includes a rundown of the media coverage. Folks who are interested in the memo's author can visit Vinod Valloppillil's home page. You may also wish to look at Tim O'Reilly's open letter to Microsoft, which addresses this issue. Finally, another useful resource is Raph Levien's essay on just what "decommoditizing a protocol" means.
Linux systems in French schools. The folks at the Association Francophone des Utilisateurs de Linux et des Logiciels Libres (AFUL) have signed an agreement with the French Ministry of Education, Research and Technology to support Linux in the French school system. This agreement essentially puts Linux on an equal footing with other, proprietary systems. Congratulations are in order for AFUL, which has come a long way in a very short time.
Followup: Linux systems in Mexican schools. After last week's article about the "Scholar Net" project went out, the leader, Arturo Espinosa Aldama, put out an FAQ about the project.
Happenings in the Linux press. Rob Kennedy's ext2 magazine went online at the beginning of November. And Freshmeat and 32bitsonline have announced a partnership. Freshmeat will get editorial content out of the deal, while 32bitsonline gets to give its readers better access to software. Linux.org is still off the net; visitors to their URLget a description of their dispute with their ex-ISP. We also got a note from USNet (the ex-ISP) explaining their side of the story. Regardless of what the truth of the matter is, the situation is ugly and unfortunate.
November 5, 1998