April 22, 2003

Review: SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 8.0 on AMD Opteron hardware

- Russell Pavlicek -

New versions of Linux normally make the technical community curious about what additional features and improved capabilities are included. However, the latest release from SuSE focuses not on adding new software features but on making
Linux available on a brand new hardware platform: the AMD Opteron. After taking the new system for a spin, I'm pretty impressed.

Over the years, I've used Linux on a number of non-x86 architectures. In
fact, as I write this, I have an old DEC Alpha running Linux on my right
and an old Sun SPARCstation 10 running Linux on my left, so I'm well
aware that Linux can look perfectly at home on machines other than PCs,
even if it takes a few twists and turns to get it to boot up.

However, this situation is a bit different. Rather than being a port of
Linux to an entirely different architecture, Linux on the Opteron is a
port to enhanced x86 architecture -- one that delivers 64-bit punch,
while maintaining compatibility for classic x86 32-bit applications.
With such an attractive upgrade path, Linux on
the Opteron could move from bleeding edge to mainstream in a relatively
short period of time -- provided, of course, that the platform can really
deliver as promised. An impressive showing at this stage of the game
could allow AMD's Opteron to emerge as a firm competitor to Intel's IA64
line, especially since the latter is unlikely to usurp the older x86
architecture any time in the near future.

The machine

The Opteron box I played with was in the custody of the ever-accommodating Jason Perlow of Linux Magazine. Provided by AMD, the
machine came preloaded with SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 8.0 for Opteron.
The sleek 1U case featured 6GB of RAM (out of an impressive 16GB max),
dual 36GB UltraSCSI disks, and dual Opteron 242 processors,
each running at 1.6GHz with 1MB of cache. Rounding out the box were
twin Gigabit Ethernet ports, plus twin 10/100 Ethernet ports for system
management.

Since the machine came preloaded with SLES and other people were using the
box as well, I didn't have an opportunity to test the installation
procedure. But, frankly, I hope the fact that the box came preloaded with
Linux foreshadows things to come. We need more Linux boxes that
come preloaded and ready for use.

Look Ma, it's still Linux!

Logging into the machine, the first thing I noticed was what I hoped to
notice: nothing. From all appearances, it was a typical SuSE Linux server
"powered by United Linux" with a KDE 3 interface. Nothing was
particularly noteworthy except the fact that it seemed quite speedy.
From a cosmetic viewpoint the software is unremarkable and boring.

Don't get me wrong -- boredom is a positive trait in this context. When
you are facing a potential conversion from one architecture to
another, boredom is a great thing. When things look "interesting," it
means that there are noticeable differences between your old box and your
new one. And that's not optimal, because you'll have to compensate for
those differences somewhere along the line.

But that's not a problem here. The look and feel is precisely what we
expect to see on an x86 SuSE Linux box. And that's great.

Simple porting tests

The next step was to try compiling some software. I have a piece of
source code which I have successfully compiled on Linux on both x86 and
64-bit Alpha machines. It must be linked against the X Window
libraries, so it is much more complex than the typical "Hello World"
application.

Compiling the code using the existing build command file did not work.
But I needed only one minor edit to make to the compile command
functional. The existing gcc command included the following syntax to
link in the X11 libraries:

gcc [blah blah blah...] -L/usr/X11R6/lib -lX11

On the Opteron machine, I had to change the library location slightly:

gcc [blah blah blah...] -L/usr/X11R6/lib64 -lX11

It's a change that doesn't exactly strain the brain, but it's a change
nonetheless. However, the code compiled quickly; about three times faster
than my 750MHz Duron could do the same compile. And the resulting
program ran precisely as expected and at very high speed.

The next test was fairly trivial, but important. I compiled a program on
my AMD Duron and transferred the executable to the Opteron. It ran
flawlessly. Similarly, Jason tells me that he has installed a number of
RPMs from the x86 version of SuSE without incident. This ability to use x86 binaries is just what you might hope for.

Minor glitches

Jason tells me that a few packages (including the VNCserver) segfaulted
out of the box. But pulling a new kit from the project Web page and
reinstalling the software seemed to fix things just fine.

The error log shows a number of northbridge errors, but these appear to be
invisible to the user. As someone who is used to Linux on Alpha, I don't
find these messages particularly disturbing. Fresh ports to new hardware
often contain minor nits that users never see, which are usually corrected in subsequent updates.

Conclusion: Boredom is good

After a satisfying round of testing, I found SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 8.0 for Opteron to be exactly what one might
hope for: something that looks and feels like an x86 product, only with
64-bit capability and great speed. To quote Jason, "It's wicked fast." Recompiling software was simple. Existing x86 binaries ran
without a problem. A couple of the RPMs provided needed replacement, but
that's not a showstopper by any means.

If you are looking for a painless upgrade path to 64-bit Linux, SLES for
Opteron definitely merits a look.

Russell Pavlicek is a consultant and author dealing
with Linux in business. He is a panelist on The Linux
Show weekly webcast, and is a contributor to a number
of Linux Web sites. He formerly wrote the Open Source
column for InfoWorld magazine.

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