Simple, Stylish and Fun Does Not Make for Data Center Nirvana

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted Sep 8, 2009


Imagine a data center some time in the future where the hardware is all white, the operating systems never crash, and everything works just right. The good-looking, trendy, 20-something server room technicians walk around with slightly smug grins on their faces because managing these servers and the applications that run on them are simple, stylish, and fun.

OS Roundup: As idyllic as it may seem, it's hard to see how any overly controlled and closed system, a la Apple, would ever triumph over an open system like that of Linux in the long term.

It sounds attractive, but there's a darker side to this data center that the staff never mention. All is not what it seems: Despite appearances, the technicians aren't really in control at all. The operating system running on all the hardware lacks basic features available on all other server OSes, but the OS maker stubbornly refuses to add them. There are plenty of finished applications the technicians would like to run, but there's no supported way of installing them. The same is true of updates, and even critical bug fixes.

That's because the hardware in this imaginary data center of the future is made by Apple, and applications and updates are only available from one place — the ServerApp Store. Since Apple knows best, it (and it alone) decides what applications its customers should be allowed to run on the servers they buy. Some are rejected because they have the temerity to improve on functionality already built into the server OS, others are rejected because they would allow the developers to offer services that Apple already offers. Some are apparently rejected just because they don't look very nice. "Data center user experience" is everything, and it's also by restricting what its customers can do that Apple can ensure everything works just right. Initially Apple planned not to allow its server customers to install any applications on their servers whatsoever to ensure maximum stability, but the normally compliant data center staff had to put their collective foot down at that idea and insist that they should be allowed to run at least a few carefully vetted applications.

Could this future ever come to pass? A cellphone vendor can get away with closed environment control freakery on this scale for it its phones, but in the server market? Surely not. Data center operators, who need reliability, security and the ability to test, analyze, modify, update and patch the code they run far more acutely than cellphone owners, simply wouldn't stand for it. They'd run Linux instead.

It's hard to see how any overly controlled and closed system can ever triumph over an open system like Linux in the long run. Which I guess is heartening for software companies like Red Hat. Red Hat doesn't make telephones or monocoque aluminium laptops, but it does make the market leading commercial enterprise Linux distro. Last week it released Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 5.4, about half a year after the release of 5.3 and some two and half years after the initial release of RHEL 5.

Far from restricting entirely what can be run on RHEL 5.4, the new release includes the KVM virtualization technology that Red Hat got its mitts on when it carried out the rather shrewd acquisition of Israel-based Qumranet last year. Red Hat supports Windows XP, Server 2003 and Server 2008 as well all currently maintained versions of RHEL as guest OSes on KVM. The company will still support Xen virtualization in RHEL 5, but going forward it reckons that the number of virtualization systems that will survive is limited, and that means that it's curtains for Xen. "We see consolidation as being inevitable, and in the medium term in this market we believe that will leave VMware, Microsoft and Red Hat," Navin Thadani, a senior director of the Linux vendor's virtualization business, told me recently.

What's interesting is that although Red Hat has not as yet made any management tools available to help customers manage its KVM-based virtual environments, Thadani doesn't see that this is a problem for customers. Other management system vendors like Microsoft or HP will probably get the ability to handle KVM-based machines sooner or later, and there's nothing Red Hat can do to stop them. But then, why would Red Hat want to anyway?

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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