November 25, 2005

Red Hat designates its top priority projects

Author: Stephen Feller

Red Hat's plans for the next two years call for the company to fund and develop several projects of interest to the Linux community. They company set out its top priorities for 2006 and 2007 in a press release detailing its plans to further fund and support free software projects, including SystemTap and OProfile, as well as develop virtualization and stateless Linux technologies for Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL).

Moving past what the company calls the first part of its technology vision for open source architecture, Red Hat is looking to build on the reductions in hardware costs it has made possible for its customers by improving cost, reliability, and ease in building and maintaining networks, said Scott Crenshaw, Red Hat's general manager for RHEL.

"We are going to deliver a package of services of best practices of tools that allows better distributed development by corporate development and independent software vendors -- higher quality code, faster time to market," Crenshaw said. "It's a combination of tools and services that will make it easier faster and increase the quality of the code that's developed."

Red Hat is also working to find ways for private enterprises to work with the open source development community, as well as to help to model work processes and the development of tools along the lines of the community. Crenshaw said this would offer companies the fast development of high quality and high performance code, produced in the model of "the world's largest and most successful development project."

Part of helping entities to invigorate internal development projects comes by delivering a variety of system tools such as SystemTap, a "non-intrusive" application and system behavior analysis software. According to the project's Web site, developers built SystemTap on the KProbes infrastructure and took cues from Sun Microsystem's DTrace and IBM's DProbes. DTrace, which works with Solaris, has received a lot of attention from enterprise customers and raised demand for a similar application for Linux.

Red Hat also is working with OProfile, a continuous real-time kernel monitor to help with system performance tuning. The software profiles all code operating on a system, allowing administrators to review a variety of statistics about that system, according to the project's Web site. Inspired by Compaq's DCPI profiler, OProfile is sponsored by Hewlett-Packard. Red Hat developed its own version of the software after kernel updates caused the software not to function on RH operating systems, according to the project FAQ.

Also among the projects Red Hat plans to nudge along is Eclipse, the integrated development environment project it helped to start. In the same breath, the company mentions Frysk, which was originally designed to integrate with Eclipse. It is expected to change the way software is analyzed, as compared with conventional debugging tools, said Red Hat Chief Technology Officer Brian Stevens.

Stevens also talked about Mudflap, a memory analysis tool that is part of the GNU Compiler Collection. Mudflap is designed to help prevent coding errors in C and C++ that lead to memory leaks, random glitches, crashes, and security breaches.

Neither Crenshaw or Stevens would point to any of the tools as being of specific interest to Red Hat, aside from saying the company has put "weight and investment behind" a number of them. Crenshaw said, however, that it goes beyond simply supporting projects for the company, because their technology is so centered around enabling the people who use the network and operating systems Red Hat is looking to provide clients with the things they need.

"Developers have spoken," Stevens said. "And they are demanding and looking for development tools which leapfrog the Unix/Windows legacy environments. They are looking for the open source model as the driver for delivering this."

Crenshaw said the "three pillars" of Red Hat's vision were virtualization, stateless Linux, and encouraging developers to continue working on cutting-edge software through the Fedora Project. According to Crenshaw, the company has been working with users and client companies to determine where their greatest costs and difficulties lie. Most often, these issues have to do with network maintenance and optimal hardware usage, and Crenshaw said that Red Hat has solutions in mind for these problems.

The Xen virtualization software has been shipping as part of the Fedora Core for some time to allow customers to use, test, and further enhance it to work with RHEL. Having seen a need for virtualization that is "tightly integrated" with the operating system, Crenshaw said the company has "invested quite heavily in helping to add resources to the Xen community, as well as the Linux community, to bring it to market faster."

"Xen is being integrated into Fedora and subsequently Red Hat Enterprise Linux as the virtualization capabilities will allow higher utilization across compute grids, as well as operational properties which are more agile and scalable," Stevens said.

Crenshaw said the drive toward virtualization has been further invigorated by data that shows the average server uses between 15% and 25% of its CPU capacity. Virtualization, on the other hand, could improve that to 80% or more, "so you can get more productivity from less hardware," he said, adding that "it comes down to more productivity at less cost. [You can] take advantage of faster, better, cheaper hardware more quickly and without extensive qualification cycles because the software is qualified to the virtual machine rather than the hardware."

Where cost really drops, Crenshaw said, is when a virtualized network improves service levels to the point that peak loads, outages, and downtime can all be handled without affecting users. The level of hardware isolation he said this provides, allowing companies to spend less time and money on requalifying application stacks on new hardware, is also in line with the stateless Linux push.

Stateless Linux

The goal of stateless Linux is to provide organizations with a way to simplify management of a large number of Linux clients, and to have a "best of both worlds" combination of the traditional thin and fat client approaches to computing.

Crenshaw said that by making the reduction of costs a major piece of the RHEL puzzle, Red Hat has found that the level and amount of support network managers need drops significantly with "centralization in the era of virtualization." Information can be managed more efficiently without having to handle machines with local hard disks and local state information.

"This truly delivers operational scale," Stevens said, "essentially to simplify the cost of managing thousands of Linux clients and servers down to effectively managing a single system."

Crenshaw said the scale that stateless provides "meshes very nicely with virtualization" because it allows more flexibility in moving workloads from server to server in response to capacity availability, capacity demand, and servers coming up and going down. Although there are customers already running elements of Red Hat's stateless system, the entire system is not due out until the end of 2006.

Ultimately, all of Red Hat's work benefits the rest of the Linux community as a whole, because the company releases all of its software under open source licenses, Crenshaw said. "I think one of our roles is that we can take our resources and target them to help the community develop tools that are perceived to be very important by [our] customer base, but [also help] the developer community as a whole."


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