x86 Server Standardization Does Not Equate to OS Pluralization

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted Apr 6, 2010


The range of hardware you can choose from to run your preferred enterprise OSes is narrowing rapidly. At this rate, it will not be long before you have no choice at all, and when alternatives disappear that offer something different -- lower cost, higher performance, better reliability -- it's bound to be bad news.

OS Roundup: Are we heading back to an era where the OS is once again tied to the hardware? Seems unlikely in this age of commodity x86 servers, yet increasingly, ISVs and OEMs are limiting what can run where.

If you're an OS X user, that's already happened: Apple forbids the use of its operating systems on anything but its own hardware (after briefly allowing clones in the mid '90s). It's technically possible to build a "Hackintosh" with OS X running on standard PC hardware, but despite the substantial cost benefit in doing so, the company is not interested in anyone else's bottom line. Apple's attitude, in other words, is if the customer wants lower-cost computer hardware, then the customer is always wrong. This probably goes a long way toward explaining Apple's dismal showing in the enterprise, and its retreat into phones, iPods, iPads and other consumer gadgetry.

But plenty of platform choices were open to organizations, that are -- or soon will be -- no longer available. Last week, for example, I mentioned how Oracle appears to be killing the project to port Solaris and OpenSolaris to IBM's System Z. But at least you can run these two Unixes on Intel chips, and -- for the moment at any rate -- on Sun SPARC hardware as well.

What about Microsoft's Windows Server operating systems? You can run them on x86 and x64 processors, to be sure, but not on much else. Once upon a time you could run them on Digital's-64 bit Alpha RISC chip, but that hasn't been an option for the past decade.

Right now, should you wish, you can choose to run the latest version of Windows Server on Intel's delay-prone Itanium processor range. But not for much longer. Writing in the Windows Server Division WebLog, Dan Reger, Microsoft's Windows Server Senior Technical Product Manager, announced last week that, "Windows Server 2008 R2 will be the last version of Windows Server to support the Intel Itanium architecture. SQL Server 2008 R2 and Visual Studio 2010 are also the last versions to support Itanium."

The reason for the move is pretty straightforward: AMD's and Intel's multi-core x64 processors can provide the scalability and reliability required, so who needs Itanium?

If we move our attention to Linux, the outlook is mixed. It's certainly true that the open source OS is popping up on an increasing number of phone and handheld platforms, and there are also numerous weird and wonderful projects to put Linux on everyday gadgets like your iPod. But when it comes to servers and high-end machines, the situation is far bleaker.

Time was, you could easily repurpose your old PowerPC-based Macintosh hardware that Apple abandoned, even if you didn't, by putting on a cutting-edge Linux distro and turning it into a useful server. But in what could be a sign of things to come, Fedora and Ubuntu versions have been slow-tracked and appear long after the Intel releases. Others are available for now, including the Red Hat Enterprise Linux based Yellow Dog Linux for PPC, but how long this will continue to be the case isn't clear. (As an interesting aside, Yellow Dog comes from Fixstars, the company that now owns Terra Soft Solutions. Terra Soft, you'll recall, was once authorized to resell Macs with Linux pre-installed. That option is now long gone.)

And now, as of April 1, you'll have a hard time finding Linux running on one particular high performance computing (HPC) platform -- Sony's PlayStation3. Since its launch, the original version of the games console has had the ability to run another OS as well as the gaming platform on its processor (although the newer "slim" models couldn't). A new version of Sony's PS3 firmware released in late March removed the option to run Linux on the PS3 once and for all.

Why would anyone want to run Linux on a PS3? As it happens, the PS3 is a pretty powerful beast with an IBM Cell BE processor at its heart. It runs Linux like a bat out of hell. The consoles are dead cheap because Sony subsidizes them, hoping to make money on the sale of games and extras. More to the point, you can link large numbers of PS3s to build a low-cost supercomputer cluster. That's why the U.S. military announced last November that it planned to increase the power of an existing 336 PS3 HPC cluster by buying a further 2,200 of the consoles, according to Ars Technica. Compared to buying IBM Cell blades there's a ten-fold price/performance advantage in using PS3s, according to a "Justification Review Document" quoted in the piece.

And that gets to the heart of the matter -- having a choice of platform may well mean lower costs, or more bang for your buck. Running OS X on cheap and cheerful server hardware, building an HPC out of PlayStations, or running a Linux file and print server on an obsolete Mac, may be great for business, but time seems to be running out for these options.

On the other hand, Microsoft abandoning Itanium? One wonders if anyone will ever notice or care.

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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