August 24, 2007

Linux Networx Pumps Up its Cluster Management Offering

by Michael Feldman

The difficulty of Linux cluster management is an admitted weakness of commodity HPC solutions and works to inhibit wider commercial adoption. Linux HPC expertise has almost become a requirement for successful system management. It’s part of the reason Microsoft’s Windows Compute Cluster Server (CCS) has been able to establish a beachhead in the HPC space. Microsoft perceived an untapped market for high performance computing that was not being met by the Linux ecosystem.

However, Linux HPC system vendors are not just sitting on their clusters. On Monday, Linux Networx launched Clusterworx Advanced, its fourth generation cluster management software. The software provides a high-level interface for managing and monitoring computing clusters. The idea is to give the system administrator a single point of control for all their cluster computing systems — even those not purchased from Linux Networx.

Linux Networx is a company better known for selling its own cluster hardware, including its high-end supersystems (LS-1), application-tuned platforms (LS-P) and visualization systems (LS-V), as well as storage systems. But in the past year, the company has revamped its strategy and become more focused on offering value-added cluster software and turnkey platforms. Like many HPC vendors, Linux Networx realized that cluster hardware was becoming a low-margin commodity, much like the Intel and AMD microprocessors upon which they were based. The Clusterworx Advanced offering fits in perfectly with the company’s new strategy to provide differentiation by offering more productive, high-value solutions.

The latest rendition of Clusterworx is able to monitor the system for problems and can be custom configured to execute the appropriate response. For example, threshold values such as CPU temperatures or file system capacity limits can be established, and remedial actions, such as generating an email to the system administrator, can be specified. Actions can be also be specified that will occur without human interaction when the system needs to be protected in real-time.

This latest version of Clusterworx also supports a version control feature, which keeps track of system software updates and allows for rollbacks to previous versions. For example, if an OS patch is applied that causes application failure due to incompatibility issues, the patch can quickly be backed out and the system reprovisioned. Another time-saving feature is Clusterworx’ multicast provisioning, which enables all the nodes to be provisioned with a single server image by broadcasting it across the cluster nodes simultaneously. This is especially valuable as cluster sizes grow beyond 32, or so, nodes.

The Clusterworx graphical user interface (GUI) has also been upgraded to improve ease-of-use. According to Linux Networx chief technology officer, Dave Morton, the new Clusterworx GUI reduces the amount of specialized Linux expertise needed to manage high performance cluster computers, allowing organizations to utilize less skilled administrators.

“If you look at most of the people who are successful at managing Linux clusters, it requires a high-level system admin with advanced skillsets — someone who really understands the Linux environment, has the ability to install RPMs, knows how to check for compatibilities, and is able to do a lot of command-line activities,” says Morton.

He believes Clusterworx will reduce the load on the resident Linux guru and allow the “guy that comes in on the third shift from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.” to manage the HPC systems as effectively as the first string. The aforementioned Linux guru still has a role to play though. Most likely, that individual will be the one to set up the Clusterworx scripting to automate the cluster management for the less skilled personnel.

Clusterworx Advanced will be bundled along with Linux Networx’ own HPC systems. Up until recently, this was the only way customers could get the company’s cluster management solution. But the latest version is also designed to work in multi-vendor environments. Besides supporting Linux Networx hardware, Clusterworx is also able to manage HP and Dell clusters. According to Morton, a customer with no installed Linux Networx systems purchased Clusterworx for their heterogeneous HP/Dell cluster environment. Morton says Linux Networx is in the process of qualifying the software for additional vendors’ hardware.

Going the multi-vendor route bumps Clusterworx up against other general-purpose cluster management suites like Rocks and Scali Manage. Linux Networx thinks their offering is well placed against these two by offering some unique features, like version roll-back and multicast provisioning. If Clusterworx really does get extended to an even broader array of vendor platforms, it could offer some interesting competition in the cluster management space.

Linux Networx is offering a “Jump-Start” 30-day, cost-free trial for those wishing to kick the tires on the software before they purchase it.