6 key points about Intel's hot new Linux distro

Intel’s container-focused Linux distro for the cloud is packed with intriguing features. Here’s what you need to know

6 key points about Intel's hot new Linux distro
Intel

The great thing about Linux is is that anyone possessing the wherewithal and dedication can produce a distribution to satisfy their own needs. That's also the bad thing, as it means many Linux distributions, even those with name backing, fight to distinguish themselves or to be recognized at all.

With Intel Clear Linux, the name-brand recognition is only a small part of what matters. Yes, it's significant that the kingpin chipmaker is adding an entry to Linux Distro Makers Club, but why and to what end?

1. It's all about performance -- on Intel's hardware

Intel wants Clear Linux to be known for high performance when running cloud workloads. This works not only by using the latest and greatest Linux innovations -- although they are in play -- but also by incorporating features only available in recent-generation Intel processors.

For most people, this won't be a practical barrier. Nearly anyone with ambitions to run Linux at scale will do so on an Intel Core processor (at least fourth generation) or an Intel Xeon E5 v3 or E3 v5. What might give some people pause: This ties any performance advantages afforded by Clear Linux specifically to Intel hardware. In other words, it's more a philosophical than a practical concern, but you should keep it in mind if you're uneasy about committing to one manufacturer's processor architecture.

2. It's also all about containers

Aside from the performance improvements, Intel's vision is to create a "lean and fast" (Intel's own words) distribution to run container workloads in the cloud. This should sound familiar -- folks like CoreOS have been doing the same with their Linux distributions.

Intel brings to the table the above-mentioned performance improvements, specifically to run containers and equip them with better security with hardware-level VM-style isolation. Intel has brought in several optimizations, like placing certain parts of the filesystem in persistent memory to allow fast booting of kernels in the KVM hypervisor. This means slightly slower startup times than with Docker, but Intel believes the trade-off of startup time versus performance will be more than worth it.

3. It's for people who hate updates

Another point of comparison with CoreOS is Clear Linux's construction as an OS. Most of the recent wave of Linuxes employ new approaches to packaging, delivering, and maintaining the OS -- for example, Project Atomic from Red Hat, which uses containers.

Clear Linux is a different embodiment of the same underlying philosophy: Make the system easy to update, maintain, and roll back, whatever the mechanism. With updates, for instance, Clear Linux eschews the idea of individual package updates. Instead, each change set is delivered as a single systemwide update that applies only the needed changes to the system based on whichever version is currently running. Intel claims this method reduces the amount of state information that has to be tracked for a given OS version to a single number.

4. Its benchmarks are impressive

People have good reason to be suspicious of benchmarks: They often reflect the construction of a test more than they reflect performance. But they also provide a hint as to where an item falls within a spectrum of choice.

Michael Larabel of Linux enthusiast site Phoronix benchmarked Clear Linux in November 2016 against several container-oriented distributions: Ubuntu 16.10, CentOS 7, Debian 8, and Alpine Linux 3.4.4. Clear Linux was modestly faster in many respects and markedly faster in others. Caffe, a deep learning framework, ran far faster on Clear Linux than Debian or Ubuntu; Clear Linux also edged out the competitor with Redis. On the other hand, a bare-metal host -- a logical choice for high performance -- still beat the pants off everything else in compilation and edged out the others on PostgreSQL.

5. Its best ideas seem as yet untapped

Several of Clear Linux's most touted features seem like solutions waiting for problems to happen to them, or for real-world use cases to prove how much of a draw they really are. Function multiversioning (FVM), for instance, allows C code to support multiple versions of the same function in a single binary, with the different versions optimized for different sets of processor extensions. As a result, a single binary could be produced that exploits specific processor features if they're available and falls back to a safe default if they aren't.

The idea is to "write once and deploy everywhere," and to allow the user to have to obtain only a single binary for optimal performance. But the use cases for this seem fairly narrow -- nice to have, but not essential.

More appealing and more immediately useful are what Intel bills as "stateless" features in the distribution -- specifically, keeping distribution data and administrator-defined data separate. Removing /etc and /var in a Clear Linux distribution "effectively performs a factory reset." This allows the system to be more readily configured for specific functions with less hassle -- a devops win, in theory. We'll want to see how that plays out for regular Joe Admins.

6. Microsoft takes it seriously

Clear Linux is now one of the support Linux distributions available to run on Microsoft Azure, as revealed last week. Given the historically close relationship between Microsoft and Intel, it would've been downright embarrassing for Microsoft to let another cloud provider offer Clear Linux support first. 

Three versions of Clear Linux -- a bare-bones VM, one that's Docker-centric, and one outfitted with machine learning tools -- are available for immediate use. The last one in particular makes sense in light of Phoronix's benchmarks, and in turn hints at how Clear Linux might find its audience by running specific loads both faster and more conveniently than the competition.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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