Linux in Government: Navy Sonar Opens New Opportunities for Linux Clusters and IBM G5 servers

by Tom Adelstein

Lockheed Martin delivered a High Performance Computing (HPC) solution to the US Navy last year to run sonar systems in nuclear submarines. The solutions involved Apple Xserve systems using G4 processors and a Red Hat Linux-based operating system. While few people noticed the announcements made by Terra Soft, makers of Yellow Dog Linux, the event triggered ripples in the industry.

The Lockheed Martin Linux systems varied in two respects from the standard solution of the Apple Xserve. First, the solution did not use Apple's Mac OS X operating system. Secondly, Lockheed Martin built their own chassis and only used the internals of the Xserve. Lockheed Martin wanted the G4 PowerPC chips and Linux to provide a low heat, low power consumption solution. On a nuclear submarine, such features are essential.

In the past, the Navy relied heavily on older embedded solutions, which offered little ability to deploy software. The embedded systems, for example, could not adapt to Web Services that deliver geographic information (GIS) needed in the sonar process. A HPC Linux solution gave users the ability to adapt to various formats of data and encryption, which is critical to the timely delivery of data.

The PowerPC opened a whole new era, since it enabled engineers to use software, not hardware, for large computing jobs. Lockheed Martin's engineers discovered they could do more with a PowerPC with AltiVec than a traditional Digital Signal Processor (DSP), because it allows for an adaptive, flexible computing platform.

AltiVec(tm) is Motorola's trademark for the first PowerPC Single Instruction, Multiple Data (SIMD) extension. AltiVec was jointly developed by Motorola, IBM, and Apple. This same SIMD technology is called Velocity Engine by Apple. When IBM talks about this particular technology option they use VMX, the technology's original code name.

A SIMD system packs multiple data elements into a single register and performs the same calculation on all of them at the same time. In the Lockheed Martin solution, Terra Soft provided software engineering and support services. Modifications included device driver enhancements, kernel development, tuning firmware to allow serial port terminal control. They also aided in performance testing and helped with third party engineering and systems integration.

The integrated solution allowed Lockheed Martin to meet the requirements of the Navy's contract for sonar systems for nuclear submarines. The key to the solution involved a specific form-factor, processor density and Linux. Unfortunately, Red Hat does not offer a PowerPC port of their own software.

From Under the Sea to the Skies

In addition to using Linux in for sonar in nuclear submarines, Lockheed Martin demonstrated a further commitment to Linux by awarding a contract to CSP for use in the Navy's advanced E-2C Hawkeye aircraft.

CSP Inc., based in Billerica, Massachusetts won the bid for the Hawkeye with their 2000 SERIES MultiComputer products. The MultiComputer division of CSP supplies high-performance Linux cluster systems for a defense applications, including radar, sonar and surveillance signal processing.

CSP features Linux HPC products such as their FastCluster server products. The company uses the Myrinet interconnect standard for MPI interprocessor communications, PowerPC processors with AltiVec technology and Yellow Dog Linux which they claim as the industry standard Operating System for PowerPC.

CSP also says that they use a full compliment of vectorizers, compilers, development tools and run-time performance libraries from the Linux community. Their solutions provide instant booting from a cold start, error-correcting memory, a fault tolerant MPI-like library, hot-swappable hardware, extended environmental specifications and built-in test.

Does IBM Takes the Hint?

The High Performance Computing (HPC) market remains a bright spot in the technology sector. This time last year, Intel-based platforms appeared to have the edge in the market. For example, Linux Networx was selected to build the cluster of 1408 dual-processor Opteron servers for Los Alamos Labs. However, most HPC wins went to HP and IBM came up short to companies like Linux Networx and Penguin Computing.

The Harvard Research Group wrote in HRG Assessment: HP High Performance Computing LC Series that:

The Linux cluster market in 2003 was more than 1/3 of the overall Linux server market in terms of revenue. HP dominated the worldwide Linux server market with about 29% of revenue market share and Linux servers provided over 25% of HP's HPTC market share of 37%. The worldwide Linux cluster market is expected to grow faster than the worldwide Linux server market over the next 2 -3 years as transition continues to take place from RISC/Unix technology to industry standard server and operating system technology. This growth will occur because HPC buyers are focused on price/performance, and Linux clusters have a 5x to 20x price/performance advantage over previous generation RISC/Unix platforms.

The new IBM eServer OpenPower 720

On September 13th, IBM introduced a new Power5 server tuned for Linux. Contrary to Harvard Research Group's belief that a transition will occur from RISC to Intel, IBM seems to be betting on RISC again. They may be right, the PowerPC could help them capture market share in the fastest growing sector of the technology market.

What About Apple?

On August 27th, O'Grady's Powerpage reported delays in Apple's ability to deliver its own Xserve, iMac, G5 server and desktop computers. The delays reported by Apple has revolved around IBM's inability to deliver the G5 chip.

If IBM has trouble meeting their deliveries to Apple, you might ask why they are heavily marketing their own new OpenPower series. The answer goes back last year's win by Lockheed Martin and the Navy's sonar solution. High Performance Linux server deployment has increased significantly. IBM has been on the hunt for wins in this space and has taken internal criticism for losing to what management considers inferior competitors.

If Lockheed Martin had to buy Apple Xserves and tear them out of their chassis to get to the IBM G4 chip, that indicates a preference for the chip not the Apple server. IBM can now offer hardware platforms that have a specific form-factor, high density processors and Linux.

That provides IBM with an edge in a market catering to more than nuclear submarines. As mentioned above, military aircraft also use sonar arrays. Department of Energy laboratories use large clusters as do places like Los Alamos. Emergency Response Network Systems such as those used to manage storms such as the three hurricanes in Florida.

In spite of the wins Apple has touted in the HPC space, their director of HPC resigned because he did not believe Apple was serious about the market. If Apple has more interest in equipping BMW's with iPods, perhaps IBM doesn't feel that bad about meeting their own needs first.

What About Linux in Government?

On their IBM eServer OpenPower 720 web page, IBM states that the 720 is available with SUSE LINUX Enterprise Server 9 (SLES9) only. It is not supported by any of the variants of Red Hat Linux.

In today's government environment, Red Hat has captured a commanding market share. Much of Red Hat's success exists because of partners like HP, Dell and Oracle. Large government contractors, including Lockheed Martin, consider themselves Red Hat shops.

If IBM intends to penetrate the government HPC sector, they will need to partner with Red Hat. But, will Red Hat choose to provide a version for the PowerPC? Much depends on the real commitment to the Linux Standards Base and time. Meanwhile, a small Linux distributor has picked up a significant amount of business because they ported to the PowerPC.

Tom Adelstein lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Yvonne, and works as a Linux and open-source software consultant locally and nationally. He's the co-author of the upcoming book Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop, published by O'Reilly and Associates. Tom has written numerous articles on Linux technical and marketing issues as a guest editor for a variety of publications. His latest venture has him working as the webmaster of

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