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Linux Makes The Big Leagues

Sam Williams

Issue #44, December 1997

This report on the HP conference freatures the announcement by Hewlett Packard of a port of MkLinux to its HP PA-RISC machines.

It may seem odd to be reading about an HP conference in Linux Journal. The fact of the matter is that interest in Linux is growing world wide. Many hardware vendors are interested in Linux because, quite frankly, it scares them. Even more importantly there were a couple of events at this conference that underscore some very important trends in the computing industry.

Prior to the conference I was excited to attend a white paper presentation by Chip Richards (richards@eng.iac.honeywell.com) called “A Place for Linux”, which occurred on the fourth day. His discussion centered on the current uses of Linux at Honeywell. Currently, Honeywell is using Linux as a design platform for several applications that are then ported to HP-UX once the development is completed. This approach allows them to capitalize their investment in PC hardware while keeping development costs down. His presentation was well received by a group that I would estimate at approximately 100 people. The attendance was good considering the conference had approximately 1200 attendees.

There were three very interesting keynote speakers. The first was Stephen Wallach from Convex technologies. The second was Dr. Ira Goldstein of Hewlett Packard and the third was Robert Cringely, author.

The evening started off with Dr. Wallach’s speech. Dr. Wallach is not only the head of Convex, but also its founder. He talked about the recent acquisition of Convex by HP and the advantages the merger would bring to both companies. Also discussed was the new HP Exemplar-class server based on Convex technology. Dr. Wallach is a very interesting presenter who clearly didn’t have enough time for everything he wanted to say.

The second presenter was Dr. Ira Goldstein, Chief Technology Officer, CSO in HP. His presentation dealt primarily with the Internet and imagery. He discussed some new technologies for image production and transport that are being developed jointly by HP, Microsoft and Kodak. The presented ideas seemed sound and would minimize many of the performance problems that we have today when downloading images from the Internet. This new technology would not only improve the ability to download quickly, but also allow you to resize images dynamically with very little loss in quality.

The most astounding revelation came during Dr. Goldstein’s presentation—he discussed a new port of the Linux operating system to the HP PA-RISC architecture. He and his development team had decided to port the Carnegie Mellon Mach kernel to HP PA-RISC in order to use it for their imagery work. Once the port was finished they began looking for an OS layer. Since HP-UX is bound tightly to its monolithic kernel, it was excluded from consideration. Knowing that last year Apple helped produce a Linux layer that would interoperate with the Mach kernel (MkLinux), they decided to go in that direction for their operating system. Goldstein’s team went one porting step further and took the actual Apple Linux source code and ported it easily to the new HP environment. The results are a new port of Linux that will run on any PA-RISC based machine.

Goldstein went on to question the audience about how many people might be interested in this port. I would say that about 50 hands went up. The reality is that companies can’t always replace their computing base after three years, even with hardware obsolescence. Those companies that cannot afford new hardware want to get the best usage possible from the machines they have. Sometimes this comes through the use of sources such as Linux. Additional information on this project and Hewlett Packard’s sponsorship can be found at http://www.gr.osf.org/mklinux/.

The final presenter was Robert X. Cringely. Cringely is the author of the book “Triumph of the Nerds in Silicon Valley” that was recently produced as a PBS special for television. By and large, this was a very entertaining presentation. Cringely is a sleeper. He was introduced as a writer and TV personality. What we didn’t find out until well within the presentation is that he is a computer consultant, that he was employee #12 at Apple, that he owns and directs a company building Internet-based software and that he is a very entertaining presenter. He discussed his beliefs for the near-term growth of the computer industry and answered many questions from the audience, sharing the stage with Steve Wallach for the Q&A session.

Afterwards, I had an opportunity to speak with both Dr. Goldstein and Mr. Cringely. Dr. Goldstein indicated that once his team had completed their work, HP had been more than willing to freely give the port without formal support to the Internet community (see URL above). He also indicated that in the future if there is a good showing of interest in this port, someone from HP might upgrade the Mach kernel and Linux environment as changes arise. Dr. Goldstein also went on to suggest that many companies might be interested in this port to help them leverage their existing technology. While not necessarily interested in providing Linux, HP is still interested in keeping their workstations on the desktop as long as possible. The bottom line is that the workstation still says HP no matter what OS it is running. This concept provides a way for the company to keep the customer interested in the lean times when equipment budgets are low.

Sam has worked with Unix and its variants for over a decade. He has worked with Linux since the 0.95 days. Four years ago he designed one of the first mainframe to Unix conversion projects in the Midwest. When not trying to convert the masses to Linux, he spends as much time with his family (wife and 3 kids) as possible. Currently he is waiting acceptance into a Masters degree program for Computer Science. He can be reached via e-mail at samw@www.com.


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