January 13, 2004

Saudi Space Institute techies love their new Linux computer

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Riyadh -- You didn't know Saudi Arabia had its own Space Institute, did you? That's the problem with the snapshots of a foreign country you get from mainstream news: You don't get to look at any of the cool technology, just at some politicians spouting off, and maybe a few pics of the country's most strident opposition leaders. No "western" journalist has ever taken pictures of the Institute's staff or its computer center, which is part of the King Abdulaziz City for Science & Technology, known to its denizens as "KACST," pronounced "cast."The lack of coverage here isn't because the Saudis are hiding anything, but because of an almost total lack of interest in KACST's work by foreign journalists. These are hospitable, not hostile, people. I was brought to KACST by Mohammed I. Alkanhal, a speech-to-text guru at KACST's Computer and Electronics Research Institute. We were waved through the gate without any fuss, and were greeted warmly by Abdulaziz N. Almadi, assistant director of the Space Research Institute. Both Alkanhal and Almadi spoke excellent English; they both got their PhDs in the U.S.
Abdulaziz N. Almadi

Almadi and his people direct Saudi Arabia's imaging satellites. The country put up its own after years of buying images from U.S. and European "space image" vendors so they could "task" satellites for their own missions immediately and get near-realtime images instead of waiting up to six months for information requests to be filled by outsiders.

There were some aspects of his agency's activities Almadi glossed over, mentioning only that "national security" was a factor in the decisions to launch Saudi-owned satellites, but he also pointed out that the vast majority of the images his agency processes are used for scientific research and other "civilian" purposes.

Down on the ground, image processing is a processor-intensive activity handled here by racks from Sun, SGI, and other "big iron" vendors. Many of the desktops run Windows, Almadi says, because that's the only operating system for which some of their favorite imaging apps are available, combined with gaps in Arabic support for Linux office applications. But if you look at the photo of Almadi next to his latest acquisition, looking for all the world like a proud pappa showing off a new baby, you will notice that it is an SGI Altix 3000, and it runs Linux, not Windows.

The Altix, says Almadi, "was a demo unit. We liked it so much that we bought it." His plan is to hook virtual desktops directly to it and use this rig for some of their most intensive image processing; he expects far greater speed with the direct I/O between Intel-powered units than he got between Unix machines and Windows desktops running their own software.

Despite his love for SGI products, Almadi says he demanded -- and got -- a contract from SGI that says they will refund the full price paid if they don't provide support for the Altix for a minimum of three years from the date of purchase. He had bought several other SGI desktop machines in the past that the company "orphaned" not long after he bought them, and he did not want to go through that experience again.

There is a slow but deliberate switch to Linux going on here, starting at the server level. "If we had our way, we would go all Linux [on the big iron]," says Almadi. But for the moment, older Sun and SGI Unix units are running fine, and budgets are a concern in Saudi Arabia just like anywhere else.

For the moment, the Saudi Space Institute is going to keep a fair amount of Windows running on desktops. High-powered image processing applications simply aren't there yet for Linux at the desktop level, but Almadi expects that to change. "We're not pushing Windows out and pushing Linux in," Almadi says, but as new Linux applications are developed and Arabic support improves, he expects to see an increase in the number of desktops in his agency that run Linux and other open source software.

Category:

  • Software
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