February 12, 2002

Linux, IBM database power map service, the largest public database on the Web

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

This could easily be another one of those customer-chooses-Linux- with-IBM-product stories, which are getting fairly common these days. Except that, in this case, the customer is using Linux and IBM's DB2 database to power a "20-terabyte publicly-accessible database on the Web that lets users see an overhead view of virtually any location in the United States."

The customer is Florida International University, which operates the online map database TerraFly. The university is exploring how to sell TerraFly, developed with help from the U.S. government, to customers such as real estate companies, to give their customers information on the neighborhoods where houses for sale are available.

Think of TerraFly, which has been accessible to the public since October, as an overhead map on steroids. You can zoom in and out, of course, but you can also use a toolbar on the side to "fly" across the landscape, viewing the terrain as you would if you were in a low-flying helicopter. In my urban neighborhood, I clicked on the map and a list of area hotels with reservation information popped up. TerraFly can handle other overlays as well, such as landmarks or street names.

Dr. Napthali Rishe, director of FIU's High Performance Database Research Center, says the online map can be used to allow house-hunters to "see" homes in their budgets, and click on a particular residence to retrieve a sales brochure. Or, travelers could fly over a resort area, zoom-in on an appealing vacation hideaway or hotel, then click on the image to access the establishment's online reservation system.

Before we get into why FIU chose Linux and DB2, I had to test TerraFly, which is in the middle of the switch to DB2. Sure, TerraFly could find addresses in several U.S. East Coast cities, but could it find an address in a town of 600 people in central North Dakota? Sure enough, and I could fly over the empty landscape to the next town within seconds, assuming my DSL connection was working at the time. One warning: The Java Applet seemed to work better with Windows than Linux.


Rishe says his department has been experimenting with Linux in the past, but the choice to use Linux and IBM's DB2 together made the most sense for this database-intensive project, which he says will be the largest publicly accessible database on the Web. "We always thought that Linux was the best environment for the kind of work we're doing," he says. "We determined further that IBM had the most efficient and cost-effective solution for very large databases."

Rishe says FIU tried a couple of other databases unsuccessfully with Linux and other platforms.

Jeff Jones, director of strategy for IBM data management solutions, says TerraFly is one convert in an IBM push to promote DB2 as what Jones calls an more reliable and cost-effective alternative to other commercial databases and as a heavyweight alternative to Open Source databases like MySQL and PostgreSQL. IBM has cut the Linux version of DB2 in half, to half of what it is on other platforms, in response to that competition.

"Linux is an extremely price sensitive environment," Jones says. "When the basic operating system can be downloaded for free, you're looking at a cost dynamic you have to be mindful of. You have some relational database choices, albeit not of the scale and performance performance profile of DB2, but still true relational database choices. With a zero price tag on some of these Open Source databases, we want to keep the proper image."

Jones sees TerraFly's use of Linux as a larger trend toward an increased acceptance and comfort level among commercial vendors and in the life sciences industry, where Linux is used to run high-power computers research such as the human genome.

"The life sciences industry is showing an acceptance level for Linux that goes way outside the initial box Linux was put in by the outside world, that being a Web server operating system, or purely academic," Jones says. "Linux is beginning to get beyond the university and Web server ranks and into real mainstream business."

Jones predicts the growth of Linux in those areas won't level off any time soon. "It seems to be still early on in the growth curve," he says. "We're quite some ways away from Linux slowing down." A recent IDC study, he says, predicted a $2.2 billion market for Linux relational databases in 2002, and a triple-digit percentage annual growth rate.


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