UNSW joins international Linux research effort

By Ashlee Vance
Thursday, 14 March, 2002

A team from the University of NSW is one of the members of a newly-formed international group set up to examine how the Linux operating system running on Hewlett-Packard servers can serve as a key platform for research.

HP is looking for its Itanium processor-based servers to play a big role in the scientific community, and researchers appear to think the company has something to contribute.

The Itanium architecture is built around a new 64-bit architecture from Intel that provides servers with more horsepower for running software than current 32-bit chips.

Although the Itanium chips are expensive now, some research institutions believe Intel's products will soon serve as a platform for less expensive high-end computing, as laws of supply and demand help Intel edge out its competitors on system costs, said Martin Fink, general manager for HP's Linux systems organisation.

In addition, HP and researchers are excited about the prospect of running the open-source Linux operating system on these powerful Itanium systems.

Although a number of operating systems will run on Itanium, HP is partnering with the research groups to strengthen the performance of Linux on the new chips. If they use Linux, researchers and developers can freely exchange ideas and discoveries about the software with a vast open-source community. Additionally, Linux carries a much lower price tag than many mainstream operating systems, making it a natural choice for research bodies. Apart from HP and UNSW, the group, formally known as the Gelato Federation, includes the BioInformatics Institute in Singapore, Groupe ESIEE in France, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in the US, China's Tsinghua University , the University of Illinois and the University of Waterloo in Canada.

All the members will be working toward the same goal - taking advantage of Linux on Itanium for doing high-end computing - but each will focus on different areas of development. The BioInformatics Institute, for example, has already begun connecting large numbers of Itanium servers together in a cluster to help with tasks such as extracting and interpreting gene sequences.

The BioInformatics Institute will need help from other members of Gelato to run these types of massive computing networks. Although Linux is widely regarded as a more stable platform than those offered by Microsoft, it has yet to equal Unix for stability under pressure-packed conditions, according to industry analysts.

To help solve some of these problems, the NCSA is doing research to strengthen Linux and make it more reliable for high-performance computing.

"We are in the research computing business, and part of our role is to push the edge and be more aggressive than a corporate organization could afford to be," said Dan Reed, director of NCSA. "We will be looking at various Linux issues and how we can help push it to the high end."

Strengthening Linux could make the software a key tool for work in advanced areas such as bioinformatics, grid computing, life sciences and physical sciences, HP's Fink said.

Researchers in these areas are looking for cost-effective ways to link numerous computers together as a tool for crunching huge chunks of data. Since Linux can run on less expensive hardware than Unix vendors currently offer, institutions could stand to save money by picking Linux.

In addition, the Linux community can often solve problems for the researchers at a quicker clip than can vendors, said Gernot Heiser, associate professor at the UNSW school of computer science and engineering.

"There is more happening right now with Linux and people contributing to it," Heiser said. "This openness is attractive in a research environment, because you can either fix a problem yourself and then contribute it back for others, or you can get help from the community. In practical terms, you usually get problems fixed much faster."

Heiser said the combination of Itanium and Linux could be a real help for modelling tasks and running large numbers of calculations.

Many of the participating institutions have already received some servers from HP, but all of them are waiting to get their hands on the second-generation McKinley servers due out mid-year, Fink said. McKinley brings improvements in areas that matter in scientific computing, such as floating-point performance, and should give users an idea of how far the Itanium architecture can go.

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