Linux is the cloud's future: IBM Canada

"Linux is the past, present and future..."

While cloud computing is merely a label given to the latest evolution of what organizations have been doing for a long time, one consistent component in the cloud has been Linux, said Jim Elliott, IBM Canada Ltd.'s Linux champion.

"Linux is the past, present and future," said Elliott to an audience of IT pros during a ComputerWorld Canada Tech Insights event entitled The Linux-Powered Cloud.

Low-cost Linux-based systems were what dot.com-era startups in the late 1990s were built on, said Elliott. Today, Linux is the dominant cloud computing operating system with large and well-known public cloud infrastructures like Google and Amazon using Linux, he said. And, in the future, the role of Linux isn't changing, said Elliott: "Linux will be the cloud's future."

The benefits of Linux, said Elliott, include the ability to scale across the smallest to largest of systems, available patch management and security software, attractive licensing costs and terms, and the extensive application and partner ecosystem.

While Elliott believes Linux is the ideal choice for cloud computing, he said any operating system will work because it's really just a matter of making applications available.

Elliott breaks down cloud computing into three essential components. One, virtualization allows resources to be shared in a dynamic fashion. Two, standardization lets systems in a heterogeneous environment communicate. Third, automation to manage the plethora of servers whether physical or virtualized.

Those three components decrease cost and increases flexibility in the IT environment, said Elliott.

Also presenting at the event was Canadian customer of IBM, the University of Toronto's SciNet HPC Consortium that provides high performance computing resources for academic researchers to run scientific modelling computations.

Its chief technology officer for software, Daniel Gruner, told the audience the university operates a single data centre where resources can be easily managed in a centralized manner. The university's HPC platform runs two clusters one of which is Linux-based, and while not a virtual environment in the traditional sense, it can provision any operating system on a server as per user needs, said Gruner.

The SciNet HPC consortium is a cloud in the sense that the university runs a large resource accessible remotely by users, said Gruner. "Everybody who has access to it goes in and does their computing," he said.

But virtualization can be tricky given the large overhead costs and a performance drop, said Gruner.

Elliott acknowledged today's virtualization offerings are getting better and the overhead can be quite high for some offerings. But it is a trade-off that must be considered, he said. "Virtualization has substantial overhead but it's probably better than running four standalone machines," said Elliott.

There are numerous tools for assessing the viability of virtualization including one created by IT World Canada Inc. in tandem with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group Ltd.

Gruner said the university has been "lucky" in sourcing staff with the right Linux skill set for its 13-person team. "It's not easy to find because is not a Linux workstation, it's an HPC resource," said Gruner. "How do you manage a 4,000-node cluster?"

Unfortunately, education dollars are the first thing to get eliminated when IT budgets are cut, said Elliott. But while there are numerous online forms of virtualization and cloud education, he thinks hands-on classes are the ideal.

Follow Kathleen Lau on Twitter: @KathleenLau

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Kathleen Lau

ComputerWorld Canada
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