The Background – Linux as a Fast Follower and the Need for Hot Patching
No doubt about it, Linux has made impressive strides in the last 15 years, gaining many features previously associated with high-end proprietary Unix as it made the transition from small system plaything to core enterprise processing resource and the engine of the extended web as we know it. Along the way it gained reliable and highly scalable schedulers, a multiplicity of efficient and scalable file systems, advanced RAS features, its own embedded virtualization and efficient thread support.
As Linux grew, so did supporting hardware, particularly the capabilities of the ubiquitous x86 CPU upon which the vast majority of Linux runs today. But the debate has always been about how close Linux could get to "the real OS", the core proprietary Unix variants that for two decades defined the limits of non-mainframe scalability and reliability. But "the times they are a changing", and the new narrative may be "when will Unix catch up to Linux on critical RAS features like hot patching".
Hot patching, the ability to apply updates to the OS kernel while it is running, is a long sought-after but elusive feature of a production OS. Long sought after because both developers and operations teams recognize that bringing down an OS instance that is doing critical high-volume work is at best disruptive and worst a logistical nightmare, and elusive because it is incredibly difficult. There have been several failed attempts, and several implementations that "almost worked" but were so fraught with exceptions that they were not really useful in production.[i]
In a world where OS and low-level platform software is considered unfashionable, it was refreshing to see the Linux glitterati and cognoscenti descended on Boston for the last three days, 5000 strong and genuinely passionate about Linux. I spent a day there mingling with the crowds in the eshibit halls, attending some sessions and meeting with Red Hat management. Overall, the breadth of Red Hat’s offerings are overwhelming and way too much to comprehend ina single day or a handful of days, but I focused my attention on two big issues for the emerging software-defined data center – containers and the inexorable march of OpenStack.
Containers are all the rage, and Red Hat is firmly behind them, with its currently shipping RHEL Atomic release optimized to support them. The news at the Summit was the release of RHEL Atomic Enterprise, which extends the ability to execute and manage containers over a cluster as opposed to a single system. In conjunction with a tool stack such as Docker and Kubernates, this paves the way for very powerful distributed deployments that take advantage of the failure isolation and performance potential of clusters in the enterprise. While all the IP in RHEL Atomic, Docker and Kubernates are available to the community and competitors, it appears that RH has stolen at least a temporary early lead in bolstering the usability of this increasingly central virtualization abstraction for the next generation data center.
As the interest of Chinese organizations to adopt cloud solutions for business transformation is increasing, OpenStack-based cloud solutions have become the hot topic in the China market in 2014. I believe that 2015 will be the key year for OpenStack and it will rapidly develop in China. Here’s why:
Government policy support. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) of China held the first China Open Source & Cloud Computing Summit (COSCCS) on December 11. At this event, the Chinese government for the first time officially declared its intention to support OpenStack ecosystems and encourage state-owned enterprises (SOE) to use OpenStack-based cloud products: “…through OpenStack, we can contribute to a good business model…” said the deputy minister of MIIT. Forrester believes that there will be more and more Chinese SOEs and local governments that will invest in OpenStack-based cloud project in 2015.
OpenStack is mature as a private cloud solution. With the launch of the Juno version in October 2014, OpenStack addressed many upgrade concerns, making it easier to roll back a failed deployment and ensure thorough cleanup. It also added a record 3,219 bug fixes and enterprise features, such as storage policies, provisioning of Hadoop and Spark, as well as network functions virtualization (NFV). Another specific advantage is that Chinese organizations are not facing the challenge to upgrade from early releases of OpenStack because the China market started deployment of OpenStack mostly from 2014 onwards.
On April 23, IBM rolled out the long-awaited POWER8 CPU, the successor to POWER7+, and given the extensive pre-announcement speculation, the hardware itself was no big surprise (the details are fascinating, but not suitable for this venue), offering an estimated 30 - 50% improvement in application performance over the latest POWER7+, with potential for order of magnitude improvements with selected big data and analytics workloads. While the technology is interesting, we are pretty numb to the “bigger, better, faster” messaging that inevitably accompanies new hardware announcements, and the real impact of this announcement lies in its utility for current AIX users and IBM’s increased focus on Linux and its support of the OpenPOWER initiative.
OK, so we’re numb, but it’s still interesting. POWER8 is an entirely new processor generation implemented in 22 nm CMOS (the same geometry as Intel’s high-end CPUs). The processor features up to 12 cores, each with up to 8 threads, and a focus on not only throughput but high performance per thread and per core for low-thread-count applications. Added to the mix is up to 1 TB of memory per socket, massive PCIe 3 I/O connectivity and Coherent Accelerator Processor Interface (CAPI), IBM’s technology to deliver memory-controller-based access for accelerators and flash memory in POWER systems. CAPI figures prominently in IBM’s positioning of POWER as the ultimate analytics engine, with the announcement profiling the performance of a configuration using 40 TB of CAPI-attached flash for huge in-memory analytics at a fraction of the cost of a non-CAPI configuration.[i]
A Slam-dunk for AIX users and a new play for Linux
Every culture has its coming of age rituals — Confirmation, Bar Mitzvah, being hunted by tribal elders, surviving in the wilderness, driving at high speed while texting — all of which mark the progress from childhood to adulthood. In the high-tech world, one of the rituals marking the maturation of a company is the user group. When a company has a strategy it wants to communicate, a critical mass of customers, and prospects bright enough that it wants to highlight them rather than obscure them, it is time for a user group meeting.
This year, having passed a year since the acquisition of Novell by AttachMate and its subsequent instantiation as a standalone division, as well as being its 20th anniversary, SUSE had its first user group meeting. All in all, the portents were good, and SUSE got its core messages across to an audience of about 500 of its users as well as a cadre of the more sophisticated (IMHO) industry analysts.
Among My Key Takeaways:
SUSE is a stable company with rational management — With profitable revenues of over $200M and a publicly stated plan to hit $234 for the next fiscal year, SUSE is a reasonably sized company (technically a division of $1.3B Attachmate, but it looks and acts like an independent company), with growth rates that look to be a couple of points higher than its segment.
SUSE’s management has done an excellent job of focusing the company — SUSE, acknowledging its size disadvantage over competitor Red Hat, has chosen to focus heavily on enterprise Linux, publicly disavowing desktop and mobile device directions. SUSE’s claim is that their market share in the core enterprise segment is larger than their overall market share compared to Red Hat. This is a hard number to even begin to tweeze out, but it feels like a reasonable claim.
In the latest evolution of its Linux push, IBM has added to its non-x86 Linux server line with the introduction of new dedicated Power 7 rack and blade servers that only run Linux. “Hah!” you say. “Power already runs Linux, and quite well according to IBM.” This is indeed true, but when you look at the price/performance of Linux on standard Power, the picture is not quite as advantageous, with the higher cost of Power servers compared to x86 servers offsetting much if not all of the performance advantage.
Enter the new Flex System p24L (Linux) Compute Node blade for the new PureFlex system and the IBM PowerLinuxTM 7R2 rack server. Both are dedicated Linux-only systems with 2 Power 7 6/8 core, 4 threads/core processors, and are shipped with unlimited licenses for IBM’s PowerVM hypervisor. Most importantly, these systems, in exchange for the limitation that they will run only Linux, are priced competitively with similarly configured x86 systems from major competitors, and IBM is betting on the improvement in performance, shown by IBM-supplied benchmarks, to overcome any resistance to running Linux on a non-x86 system. Note that this is a different proposition than Linux running on an IFL in a zSeries, since the mainframe is usually not the entry for the customer — IBM typically sells to customers with existing mainframe, whereas with Power Linux they will also be attempting to sell to net new customers as well as established accounts.
I recently had an opportunity to spend some time with SUSE management, including President and General Manager Nils Brauckmann, and came away with what I think is a reasonably clear picture of The Attachmate Group’s (TAG) intentions and of SUSE’s overall condition these days. Overall, impressions were positive, with some key takeaways:
TAG has clarified its intentions regarding SUSE. TAG has organized its computer holdings as four independent business units, Novell, NetIQ, Attachmate and SUSE, each one with its own independent sales, development, marketing, etc. resources. The advantages and disadvantages of this approach are pretty straightforward, with the lack of opportunity to share resources aiming the business units for R&D and marketing/sales being balanced off by crystal clear accountability and the attendant focus it brings. SUSE management agrees that it has undercommunicated in the past, and says that now that the corporate structure has been nailed down it will be very aggressive in communicating its new structure and goals.
SUSE’s market presence has shifted to a more balanced posture. Over the last several years SUSE has shifted to a somewhat less European-centric focus, with 50% of revenues coming from North America, less than 50% from EMEA, and claims to be the No. 1 Linux vendor in China, where it has expanded its development staffing. SUSE claims to have gained market share overall, laying claim to approximately 30% of WW Linux market share by revenue.
Focus on enterprise and cloud. Given its modest revenues of under $200 million, SUSE realizes that it cannot be all things to all people, and states that it will be focusing heavily on enterprise business servers and cloud technology, with less emphasis on desktops and projects that do not have strong financial returns, such as its investment in Mono, which it has partnered with Xamarin to continue development,.
I’ve recently had the opportunity to talk with a small sample of SLES 11 and RH 6 Linux users, all developing their own applications. All were long-time Linux users, and two of them, one in travel services and one in financial services, had applications that can be described as both large and mission-critical.
The overall message is encouraging for Linux advocates, both the calm rational type as well as those who approach it with near-religious fervor. The latest releases from SUSE and Red Hat, both based on the 2.6.32 Linux kernel, show significant improvements in scalability and modest improvements in iso-configuration performance. One user reported that an application that previously had maxed out at 24 cores with SLES 10 was now nearing production certification with 48 cores under SLES 11. Performance scalability was reported as “not linear, but worth doing the upgrade.”
Overall memory scalability under Linux is still a question mark, since the widely available x86 platforms do not exceed 3 TB of memory, but initial reports from a user familiar with HP’s DL 980 verify that the new Linux Kernel can reliably manage at least 2TB of RAM under heavy load.
File system options continue to expand as well. The older Linux FS standard, ETX4, which can scale to “only” 16 TB, has been joined by additional options such as XFS (contributed by SGI), which has been implemented in several installations with file systems in excess of 100 TB, relieving a limitation that may have been more psychological than practical for most users.
As an immediate reaction to the recent announcement of Attachmate’s intention to acquire Novell, covered in depth by my colleagues and synthesized by Chris Voce in his recent blog post, I have received a string of inquiries about the probable fate of SUSE LINUX. Should we continue to invest? Will Attachmate kill it? Will it be sold?
Reduced to its essentials the answer is that we cannot predict the eventual ownership of SUSE Linux, but it is almost certain to remain a viable and widely available Linux distribution. SUSE is one of the crown jewels of Novell’s portfolio, with steady growth, gaining market share, generating increasing revenues, and from the outside at least, a profitable business.
Attachmate has two choices with SUSE – retain it as a profitable growth engine and attachment point for other Attachmate software and services, or package it up for sale. In either case they have to continue to invest in the product and its marketing. If Attachmate chooses to keep it, SUSE Linux will behave as it did with Novell. If they sell it, its acquirer will be foolish to do anything else. Speculation about potential acquirers has included HP, IBM, Cisco and Oracle, all of whom could make use of a Linux distribution as an internal product component in addition to the software and service revenues it could engender. But aside from an internal platform, for SUSE to have value as an industry alternative to Red Hat, it would have to remain vendor agnostic and widely available.
With the inescapable caveat that this is a developing situation, my current take on SUSE Linux is that there is no reason to back away from it or to fear that it will disappear into the maw of some giant IT company.