"Clean air. Walk to work. Rocky Mountain National Park is less than 45 minutes from here." That's how Kai Staats describes living in Loveland, Colo., and working at Terra Soft Solutions. Perhaps the only thing more refreshing than the Rocky Mountain scenery are the innovative PowerPC-based Linux products that his company has created.Terra Soft co-founder and CEO Kai Staats was busy developing Web sites and doing marketing consulting work through his Terra Firma Design company. Business was good, but there was a problem with how his work, and by extension, the work of his clients was presented. "We hosted our Web sites on servers that we neither owned or maintained," says Staats, "and so in 1997 [we] brought our servers in-house. I wanted Apple hardware, and my sys-admin [Terra Soft co-founder and CIO Dan Burcaw] wanted Linux. We used MKLinux at first, tried LinuxPPC, and decided we could produce a better product."
That better product made the Linux distribution scene in April 1999, when Terra Soft Solutions announced the availability of Yellow Dog Linux Champion Server 1.0. Now known simply as Yellow Dog Linux, the 2.0 version arrived to rave reviews this summer. As with any Linux distribution, the roster of Yellow Dog Linux users is quite diverse, including HBO, America Online, Boeing, and yes, Apple Computer, a company that Terra Soft has worked hard to develop a relationship Staats has described as "positive, supportive."
Later that summer, Terra Soft introduced Black Lab Linux, described on its Web page as an "enhancement" package for Yellow Dog Linux. Black Lab offers additional features for clustering and embedded development needs. Institutional users including Sandia National Laboratories, MIT's Media Lab, and NASA divisions from Ames to Langley have availed themselves of Black Lab Linux. In fact, Staats recently finished installing a 16-node Yellow briQ cluster at NASA's Jet Propulsion Labs at the end of August.
Why Linux? "All the good reasons," says Staats. "Open source. A diverse suite of applications and development tools. Stable. Fast. A community effort. People truly believe in Linux and use it because they choose to, not because their company policy dictates they must despite their personal preference."
Last year, Terra Soft started researching alternative PowerPC platforms for their Linux distributions. That search yielded an OEM partner, Total Impact, the company behind the hardware that makes up the Yellow briQ Node. Its bright yellow casing sets it apart from the usual drab assortment of data center hardware. So do the PowerPCs under the hood -- G3 or G4 processors running at 500MHz.
This past summer, California's power crisis made headline news around the U.S. That crisis seems to have largely vanished the moment utility companies secured sky-high rate increases, leaving businesses with higher monthly electric bills in the process. Staats has an excellent reason for choosing a PowerPC system -- a briQ, hopefully -- over that of any x86 offering: "PowerPC offers considerably less power consumption with an individual briQ operating as low as 15 watts. Eight nodes consume roughly 300 watts combined, which is less than a single Pentium."
Technical advantages help, too: "PowerPC offers the AltiVec technology, a Motorola DSP that processes 32-bit (single precision code) in parallel to two additional data pipes (integer and floating point). This is how a 500-MHz G4 can out perform a gigahertz x86 in many instances." Staats offers examples on his company's sites, including a handy chart and a list of additional resources.
While briQ sales have been good, Staats acknowledged that selling hardware has its own unique challenges. "The sales cycle is longer than that for software and takes some getting used to as with [the Department of Energy], we may consume a year or more to close the sale. Their funds are allocated far in advance."
In addition to doing well in the public sector, Staats said that ISPs and even private individual sales are picking up with each favorable review and customer testimonial. And PowerPC platforms, regardless of maker, seem to have a special place in the hearts of media companies. Staats said that several cable channels are interested in using the briQs as a back-end video rendering solution.
There's much in store for Terra Soft in the next couple of months. Yellow Dog Linux 2.1 is expected to make its debut during the first week of October, along with a new book title, Getting Started with Yellow Dog Linux. The latest version of Black Lab Linux will be ready soon after that release. And company representatives will be on hand at Cluster 2001 in Newport Beach, Calif., and SC2001 in Denver, Colo., to make the most of those new releases.
"We're still in business," says Staats, "proud to have survived the dot-bombs. Watch the briQ closely, it's an exciting part of our future."