Thursday, August 23, 2007

DVD upgrade adventures

I had an irresistible opportunity to rescue an Ultra 60 workstation from a trash nap recently. This is the sort of thing I really shouldn't do because I'm trying to reduce my data center footprint. On the other hand, it's such a cool workstation that I had to do it. This box was reported to be unable to boot, but I'm pretty good with hardware repairs, so decided to go for it.

Although it took forever to get through the process, the classic method worked. I can't count how many systems in this era seemed to have problems that turned out to be solved by reseating memory or CPUs. I did both, and it came to life like a resuscitated drowning victim.

Next stop, storage. I replaced the 9GB disks with 36GB disks from the unused half of my D1000 array. This was going too easy. As I was poking around the drive bay I noticed that the cable had been removed from the CD-ROM. Not a good sign. Tracing to the other end of that ribbon I noticed that someone must have been having a bad day as it was half ripped from the daughter board's crimping. Confirmed ugliness.

Being the fatal optimist I grabbed my tool kit and carefully pressed the ribbon back down onto its pins. Next stop, the drive bay. I reconnected he CD-ROM thinking that it might work... Nope. This one had a bad case of indigestion and spit out any disks I inserted. What's worse, once it spit them out, the drive tray could not be closed. Stick a fork in it - it's toasted.

I borrowed a Sun DVD from my 420r just to test out the SCSI channel, and successfully loaded Solaris 10, so it looks like the drive needs to be replaced. Next stop: eBay. I picked up a Pioneer DVD-302, which is one of the few remaining SCSI DVD options out there. I could have bought a Sun DVD, but they are all grey, and this case is beige. Can't compromise the aesthetics. (I'm really in bad shape, aren't I?). The drive arrived, looking shiny and new. I managed to get the thing installed, but it's not happy.

Booting from a DVD results in error messages like "Short read. 0x0 chars read". Eventually the retries end, and it complains about errors finding interpreter, and "Elf64 read error". Booting from a CD-ROM gets a little farther along before it spits out "incomplete read- retrying", and "vn_rdwr failed with error 0x5". Oddly, it does seem to be working once the OS is loaded, so this appears to be an incompatibility at the OBP level.

What annoyed me the most in this whole exercise was not finding anything in an hour of Google searches that indicated anyone had even attempted such an upgrade. I know there are quite a few U60s still kicking around out there, and I'd have to think their owners would be looking for DVD capability and higher speeds. I must have thought wrong. If you happen to be reading this post and have experience with a SCSI DVD-ROM being bootable in a Sun Ultra workstation I'd love to hear about it.

I guess I'll just have to keep looking for a beige Sun DVD-ROM on eBay, but so far the pickings are slim. Wish me luck.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

IBM Sees the Light?

Wow, I didn't see this coming.

IBM and Sun today jointly announced that IBM will offer and fully support Solaris on their compatible hardware lines. This raises some interesting dust clouds.

What does this mean to AIX, IBM's flagship UNIX? Personally, I think it means little. Sun supports Windows and Linux on their hardware, but those of use who have been with Sun for a long time still prefer Sparc in most cases. I believe the same will be true of IBM and Solaris.

How will Solaris compete with the investment IBM has already made in optimizing their previously supported operating environments? There's no way it will be on the same level right out of the gates, but when you consider the OpenSolaris model, it becomes clear that IBM will not have to jump through hoops to make it happen, and I believe they will. When IBM announced that they would be supporting Linux it was initially a bit of a surprise because of the inherent undermining ot AIX. And yet, they have contributed some incredible advances to Linux's abilities in the enterprise data center. I think of IBM as the mature mentor that helped Linux to grow up.

Now Solaris is no padawan looking for a master to study under, so that makes for a different game. But there's no question in my mind that IBM will have a serious group of Jedi coders participating openly and actively in the OpenSolaris community, and that can only help Sun and Solaris.

Of course, the down side is the precident this sets leading towards too broad a foundation. Using Linux as an example we see a massive code base that tries to support as much hardware as possible. There are basic laws of software engineering, just as there are laws of physics, and the more lines of code you have, the more potential you have for bugs, integration issues, and regression failures. Doesn't matter how good your developers, the probability still goes up. I'd hate to see Solaris supporting everything Linux does; I'd like it to stay focused in its sweet spot of quality hardware, which despite my preferences, I think IBM hardware is in alignment with.

What does this mean for Linux in the Enterprise? Well, I think Linux has a tough climb ahead of it as it stares up the cliff at Solaris' backside. Linux was developed on PCs by people who aren't typically in an enterprise. You could argue that the coders went to Linux because they coudln't afford at home what they had at work, but the bottom line is still the same.

Linux does not have a lot of "stick time" on servers built at the scale of Sun's high end servers like the Enterprise 20k. On the other hand, Solaris has been running on multiprocessor systems since before Linux was a twitch in Linus Torvald's ear. You have to spend time working with servers that have 20GB of RAM and 64 processors before you can even anticipate the kinds of problems that occur. Linux just doesn't have that kind of time in a data center. I'm not saying they can't get there, I'm just saying you have to pay your dues to provide stability at the high end.

Keeping all that in mind, put yourself in IBM's shoes. AIX is not gaining market share, although its a rock solid enterprise class operating environment. Linux brought IBM a huge customer base, and helped them to sell Intel hardware. Unfortunately, it didn't really put them in the data center where they belong. Along comes Solaris with the openness of Linux, and the opportunity to leverage it quickly - just as they did with Linux. But this time, they start at the upper end of scalability and bypass that climb altogether. Where would you put your resources in the long run?

Wearing my purely speculative hat, I think this announcement was a big strike against Linux in the Enterprise, and a foreshadowing of Solaris' long term viability. As more and more products come on-line with the Internet, data centers are only going to grow. And as that continues to happen, consolidation will be the only way to drive utilization up and costs down. The natural extension of this prophesy is that the operating environment that scales best and stays stable is going to be the evolutionary top of the food chain. And I think that Solaris will be in that seat.

IPMP, anyone?

While scanning various news feeds this morning I ran into a story regarding a computer breakdown at the LAX airport. The first article suggested the problem was a network card failure, and the second article suggested the problem was a switch failure.

In either case, the result was 17,000 - 20,000 (varies by atricle) international passengers being stranded for a fairly significant duration. But wait, it gets better... "The system was restored about nine hours later, only to give out again late Sunday for about 80 minutes, until about 1:15 a.m. Monday." Two failures, both stopping passengers at an incredibly busy airport.

I'd like to offer my consulting services to LAX for free, and recommend that they move an obviously critical function over to servers running the Solaris operating environment where they can enjoy the benefits of IP MultiPathing (IPMP). A properly architected system would have had redundant switches, and multiple network interfaces, each connected to a unique switch. The failures indicated would have cause no interruption to service. This is server design 101.

What, you may ask, would be the cost of this highly advcanced architecture? Well, of course it depends on the cost of the switches you run because you'd need two, but on the server side its free, and included with Solaris. I run IPMP on the servers in my basement, and my wife can assure any who may ask, my IT budget is far less than that of the mighty LAX airport.

Friday, August 03, 2007

When will Wall Street wake up?

In case you had any lingering doubts as to whether Sun has been doing the right thing by embracing the Open Source model, take a moment to peruse an entry from Jonathan Schwartz' Blog. I'll quote the part that caught my attention:

As you may have seen, we've announced our fourth quarter and full fiscal year results ... We grew revenue, expanded gross margins, streamlined our operating expenses - and closed the year with an 8% operating profit in Q4, more than double what some thought to be an aggressive target a year ago.

We did this while driving significant product transitions, going after new markets and product areas, and best of all, while aggressively moving the whole company to open source software (leading me to hope we can officially put to rest the question, "how will you make money?").

It is extremely frustrating to me that public companies must deal with putting their fate in the hands of a group of analysts who have such limited understanding of the ecosystems of information technology. Wall street has been so timid about Sun since the bubble burst, largely because their fear of the past clouds their ability to see the future (or the present, for that matter).

Today Sun has the best product portfolio I've ever seen. They also have the financial metrics to prove their strategy is good. I have invested more than ten years of my life in their products, and I can say with no hesitation that I plan to continue that investment for the next ten years as well. The only question I have is when the rest of the industry will catch up.