January 2, 2007

Audi's new luxury cars engineered on Linux

Author: Michael Stutz

For several years, German automobile manufacturer Audi AG, a subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group, has been steadily migrating its engineering systems over to Linux. The company hopes to finish the job in 2007 and have the bulk of its servers and workstations running 64-bit Linux by the end of the year.

Recently Audi, whose longstanding motto is "Vorsprung durch Technik" ("Progress through technology"), has been upgrading to 64-bit Linux in deploying its automotive CAE (Computer-Aided Engineering) servers, where simulation software is used in the design of casts, frames, and components, as well as for crash-test simulations and other 3-D visualization problems, as part of the greater migration to Linux.

"2003 and 2004 saw an explosion in the use of x86 systems using Linux," says Audi spokesman Florian Kienast. "These systems are now being replaced by x86_64-based systems."

Kienast says that most CAE applications that the company uses perform well on the x86_64 architecture. "The systems have enough memory and I/O bandwidth to cope with the requirements of the applications," he says. "The notable exceptions are MSC Nastran and ABAQUS -- these products are extremely power-hungry. Here, the large cache available on the Itanium 2 has proved to be extremely valuable."

The move to Linux is occurring not only on the server side; the company is using Linux for workstations, too.

"On [both] the server and workstation sides, we are moving steadily towards a 100% 64-bit Linux environment," says Kienast. "The number of CPUs available for CAE purposes will continue to increase as the hardware costs sink."

Audi is not a Linux newbie; this migration is part of a much longer move to Linux that the company has been making over the past several years, beginning with the deployment of Linux clusters for simulations. "Audi deployed the first Linux cluster of servers in April 2001," says Kienast.

These were for EMC (electromagnetic compatibility) simulations, which solve automotive engineering problems concerning the testing of the various electrical and electronic components to ensure that there is no interference or system disturbances. This cluster, says Kienast, was the real start of Linux at Audi. Then in the following year, he says, the first Linux-powered workstations were put into action -- after which Linux became the company's preferred choice for both CAE servers and workstations.

Where in the past the company had used Unix servers, including HP-UX, for this purpose, they were now upgraded to Linux. Among the upgrades included the use of SUSE Linux Enterprise Server from Novell and Linux clusters from Linux Networx running the MAGMASOFT casting simulation software, which was used to design the new aluminum-bodied Audi Space Frame and for other simulation and design work.

The upgrade began on the servers and then moved over to desktop workstations. And it went so well that, according to Kienast, for the past year the company has more Linux workstations than it does Unix workstations.

Linux is also employed for the the Audi WebCenter, which is the company's internal intranet and hosts the company's Web-based applications. Kienast says that the company has been using Linux there for years. Kienast says the company also relies on other open source software for its operations, including Apache Tomcat.

According to Audi's Matthias Enzinger, press contact with Audi MediaServices, the company's IT department chose Linux for three solid reasons: "[It runs on] commodity hardware, which is faster; better pricing; hardware-vendor independence."

"The use of Linux brings several advantages," agrees Kienast. The first advantage he cites is vendor independence, which is a big issue for the company. "The increase in competition amongst the hardware vendors saves costs," he says. "The consequential use of vendor-independent tools for installation and operation helps minimize the burden due to the [large] number of machines."

Secondly, Kienast says that it's advantageous for the company to have fewer operating systems. "Through the reduction in the number of operating systems in use," he says, "the operating costs have also been reduced."

But paradoxically, Kienast gives an interesting number for how much money all this Linux migration actually saves the company in the end: zero. This is because Linux systems were so much cheaper to deploy, he explains, so they greatly increased the number of machines. "The explosion in the number of Linux systems has, through sheer numbers, increased the operating costs so that the budget level has remained almost constant!"

"Operating costs concerning workstations are the same," agrees Enzinger, "but Linux servers are smaller than Unix servers, so we need and have more servers, and so the operating costs would be higher if we wouldn't use cluster administration tools."

The migration hasn't been without its struggles, but according to Enzinger the major problems Audi encountered in its switch to Linux and open source software mostly had to do with getting support for free software on the new hardware.

"Commodity hardware is changing rapidly," says Enzinger, who complains that the necessary Linux drivers don't always exist for the hardware they choose to run -- especially for the latest and greatest in graphics hardware.

But Audi continues to progress in its Linux migration -- and while plenty of Linux-based engineering work is already happening at the company, by the end of 2007 most if not all of Audi's engineering servers and workstations will be x86, 64-bit Linux-based systems.

Enzinger affirms that yes, once that migration is complete, it can be truly said that the luxury autos Audi introduces in the marketplace will be completely "engineered on Linux."

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