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November 11, 2005

Linux Networx’s Ewald: ‘Clusters are Here to Stay’

Nicole Hemsoth

While this time of the year has many people thinking about getting ready to go home for the holidays, Linux Networx Inc. CEO Robert H. “Bo” Ewald already is a jump ahead. He sees next week's SC05 gathering in Seattle as an opportunity to see old friends and members of the supercomputing family weeks before the traditional end-of-year festivities.

“I do feel like I'm going home for the holidays,” said Ewald. “SC is a great time to catch up with lots of familiar faces.” The trip also permits him to revisit some familiar turf, as he worked at then Minneapolis-based Cray Research Inc. from 1984 to 1996, capped by a two-year stint as president and chief operating officer. Those were some high times at Cray, as the company quadrupled in size to more than $900 million.

And as with any traveler heading home, Ewald will come to SC with a satchel stuffed with goodies and “family” news, more specifically exciting product and company announcements.

Most notably, Linux Networx will use the SC05 spotlight to announce that it has transformed its clusters into a new product series with two distinct families. These families, targeted respectively at high-end and mid-range customers, aim to propel cluster computing out of the perception of being a thrown-together assemblage of random hardware and software into the reality of today's clusters being pre-packaged solutions with tested applications and tight software-hardware integration.

“When you buy a car, you don't start by saying what type of fan belt, tires, etc. you want,” Ewald said, who came onboard with the company in June. “Instead you choose the car and then work through the list of options.” Linux Networx is following this analogy for its clustered solutions. First customers select the model, then the company works to build out an appropriate list of tightly integrated extras.

According to Ewald, while these two product lines, which will be officially introduced Monday at SC05, should meet the demands of the vast amount of users, the company will continue to build specialized, unique solutions for users – mainly governmental types – that require advanced technology clusters.

The company's new vision received rousing approval when unveiled a few months ago at Linux Networx's first user group meeting. This too must have felt like old times to Ewald, as earlier in his career he was involved in Cray's first meetings of this type when he worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory and then later again as a Cray executive.

“I really believe in the user group concept,” said Ewald. “I believe in the value of regularly scheduled meetings to get customers and the company to talk, share ideas, exchange thoughts about what each side needs and set about ways of getting there.” Linux Networx's first user meeting, held in September, balanced input on short-term fixes with measured responses to plans about long-term goals. Ewald characterized the meeting's tone as “open and candid.”

He took away from the user group one definite theme that he will be expounding at SC05: “Clusters are here to stay.”

That said, the dominant user chorus called out for clusters — or at least what the concept has been perceived of so far — to move beyond its first generation to what's ahead.

According to Ewald, first-generation clusters have been typecast as collections of hardware and software from different places that were pieced together requiring a lot of administrative time. The new cluster reality, he added, must take the form of standardized platforms with integrated hardware and software running applications that have been pre-tested to meet the exceptional performance and price parameters that users expect from Linux-based machines.

“And don't forget: users want the kind of support they are used to receiving from legacy supercomputing vendors,” Ewald said. “Users also are clear they want standardization — across hardware, software and support.”

Linux Networx sees its message resounding well in the government market, where the company continues to make serious efforts with national laboratories around the world. Next popular is industry, where Linux Networx has, in particular, targeted aerospace, automotive and heavy industry, Ewald said. A lot of the growth in the next few years is expected to come from defense and intelligence efforts, he added, as well as oil and gas and universities.

A little bit further out, Ewald said he envisions the financial industry becoming a strong user of clustered supercomputing. Linux Networx is in the early stages of working with one large financial concern, Ewald said, and once the vertical market as a whole recognizes cluster vendors can provide necessities such as strong systems support, he predicted more wins will accumulate rapidly.

In the meantime, starting at SC05, Ewald said Linux Networx would continue to emphasize its vision of “turning clusters into systems.” The breadth of this possibility will be visible especially at the company's booth on the SC05 exhibit floor, where demonstrations of the two new product families will be displayed prominently. Special focus also will be put on a visualization demonstration of cluster computing in a real-world application, he said.

Overall, look for Linux Networx to be sporting “a bolder, more aggressive look and feel” at SC05. While tops on that list are the product launches, Ewald said the bigger picture is showing a glimpse of the company's broader strategy for continuing to move quickly after SC05 is just a memory.

“This represents a re-launch of the company,” Ewald said. “Our intent is to take the major steps that prove we are the Linux supercomputing company.”