Panelists call for lightweight Linux

Merits of simpler Linux distribution debated at ClusterWorld

SAN JOSE, CALIF. -- Linux users and distributors were divided on the question of whether Linux distributions should become simpler or more complex during a panel discussion on the future of Linux cluster distributions that took place here at the ClusterWorld Conference & Expo here Tuesday.

In the last few years, clusters of commodity computer systems running the Linux operating system have come to dominate the world of high performance computing, once the exclusive domain of proprietary vendors like Cray Inc. And though Linux systems comprise more than half of the machines on the Top500 Supercomputer Sites list of the world's fastest supercomputers, the open source operating system still has room for improvement, according to panelists at the show.

Rusty Lusk, a senior computer scientist with Argonne National Laboratory called on Linux distribution vendors to build smaller, more lightweight Linux distributions based on a modular, more easily managed architecture. This kind of approach would reduce the complexity inherent in Linux and reduce the "dependency" problems that occurs when different programs require different versions of the software libraries that are included in Linux, he said. "With big distributions there are so many problems with version dependencies," Lusk said.

One systems integrator on the panel agreed that a lightweight distribution would help manage Linux's complexity. "Having that minimal installation, and then being able to build on it, at least for our customers, is a real important aspect," said Henry Hall, the president of Wild Open Source Inc., based in Burlington, Massachusetts.

Hall also called for tools that would allow users to track and audit changes they made to these basic kernels. "I think that would be a real asset to any individual distribution," he said.

But Donald Becker, one of the creators of the Scyld Linux distribution, predicted that distributions would become more rather than less complex. "I think we're going to see the completely opposite approach," said Becker, who is also the chief technical officer with Penguin Computing Inc. in San Francisco.

Scyld, for example looks to add as many different packages as possible to its distribution, but it also give customers the option of "ignoring" components they do not need, he said.

Scyld has reduced these dependencies by cutting down on the number of languages that are used to build the different components of its distribution, Becker said. "That means restricting the set of languages and libraries that we use internally," he said.

SuSE Linux AG would like to create a more customizable version of its Linux distribution, but at this point is not exactly sure how to address this issue said Timothy Beloney, an original electronics manufacturer account developer with SuSE. In recent months, SuSE's parent company, Novell Inc., has formed a team to address the high-performance computing market, he said.

"There is no mainstream Linux distribution that addresses the cluster market head on, and I want SuSE to be the first to do that," he said. "We would like to have something that's customizable by everyone; we're not sure exactly how that's going to happen," he said.