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If somebody invited you to see one of the biggest Linux systems on the planet would you go? We didn't have to think long about that one, especially since the system in question (NOAA FSL's "Jet" cluster) is in our home town. This system, put together by HPTi, consists of 276 Alpha-powered nodes in its first phase; it is used for numerical weather modeling applications. What we saw can be found in this feature article, along with some pictures of the system. Have a look to see how a state-of-the-art Linux supercomputer is put together and what it is used for.
IBM is installing a Beowulf cluster at the University of New Mexico. This cluster is claimed to be the largest such in the world, and the 24th fastest supercomputer overall (though the Jet cluster may yet surpass it in its later phases). This cluster is called "Los Lobos," which may cause confusion with the longstanding LoBoS (Lots of Boxes on Shelves) cluster running at NIH. Los Lobos will eventually be part of a nationwide network of such clusters, managed as a large "virtual cluster" and made available to researchers. (See also: articles in Wired News, LinuxPlanet, News.com, and from Reuters).
Both of these clusters highlight an increasingly obvious point: traditional supercomputers are in deep trouble. Old-style "big iron" remains unmatched for some tasks, but it simply can not compete with commodity hardware clusters in processing power for the money. For universities, most companies, and many governments there is simply no choice: the only way to get high-end supercomputer performance is via a cluster system.
Companies like HPTi and IBM have seen the money to be made in this area, and are pursuing it vigorously. Expect others to join them. With luck, this activity will lead to more free clustering software as well; the current state of the art is still somewhat primitive. Current clusters tend to run a relatively small number of highly specialized applications; future clusters should be easily usable in a more general way.
One step in that direction might be found in this announcement from Mission Critical Linux. They are preparing a cluster system which is aimed at the financial market. As a result, their PR talks about things like data integrity and high availability. The product will be available (as a two-node cluster) in June.
While Linux clustering still has some ground to cover, there is little doubt that it will get there; the market forces are that strong.
The CyberPatrol case. CyberPatrol is a web-filtering package sold by Microsystems Software, Inc. Included in the package is a list of sites to be blocked; this list was encrypted via a proprietary, closed-source scheme. As is often the case with such schemes, it was poorly done and easily cracked. Two hackers, Eddy L. O. Jansson and Matthew Skala, broke the scheme, and wrote a little utility that people could use to actually look at the CyberPatrol block list. A full analysis of the scheme is available; among other things, it uses an encryption key that is all of eight bits long.
People immediately had a field day, of course, playing with the list. As might be expected, many sites have been blocked for reasons that are, say, unclear. But Microsystems Software and its parent Mattel are not amused. They have hit the courts in an attempt to block the spread of the "cphack" program. Predictably once again, they have succeeded only in calling attention to cphack and spreading it all over the net. It's the DVD story all over again.
They are also sending subpoenas to sites that have put up the software, or that have even linked to it. Among other things, they want lists of everybody who might have downloaded cphack. So much for privacy; hit the wrong link and you can be reported, by court order, to a hostile corporation.
The CyberPatrol people are basing their actions on the reverse engineering clause in CyberPatrol's license. They have sold inferior software that is alleged to protect children; now they want to make it illegal to reveal just how bad that software is. The hood of this car is truly welded shut; it is against the law to look inside to see what you bought.
Companies like Mattel are making the case for free software in a way that the Free Software Foundation can only dream of. Every case like this one - and be sure that there will be more of them - drives home the point: proprietary software restricts freedom in increasingly dangerous ways. It really is a matter of basic freedom. As software plays an ever-larger role in all our lives, do we really want to trust ourselves to something we can't even look at?
Feature Article: MaxOS Linux. When we heard of yet another Linux distribution, MaxOS Linux, we started routine enquiries to get an idea of the purpose of the distribution and the people behind it. This feature article, MaxOS: A New Linux Distribution from the Ground Up, plumbs into those issues and more in a look at this new distribution out of the frozen north.
Netcraft: Apache now at 60%. The latest Netcraft survey is out. This one shows Apache running on just over 60% of the web for the first time; all of the other major web servers have fallen in market share.
Pre-registration for the CLIQ. Attendees for the Colorado Linux Info Quest are urged to pre-register for the conference by mail or via the secure online registration system. The latest press release anticipates an uncomfortable crowd the morning of the show. "... getting all those people registered in time to catch the keynote will be difficult, even with our automated registration system." Also, credit card payments will only be accepted for pre-registration. Check or cash will be required the day of the event.
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March 23, 2000