May 19, 2003
Linux Lunges into the Limelight
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Peggy Aycinena - Contributing Editor

by Peggy Aycinena - Contributing Editor
Posted anew every four weeks or so, the EDA WEEKLY delivers to its readers information concerning the latest happenings in the EDA industry, covering vendors, products, finances and new developments. Frequently, feature articles on selected public or private EDA companies are presented. Brought to you by If we miss a story or subject that you feel deserves to be included, or you just want to suggest a future topic, please contact us! Questions? Feedback? Click here. Thank you!

You haven't been looking if you haven't seen that Linux is a virtual tsunami poised straight overhead, about to crash down onto the beach all around you. Whether you're a designer, an EDA vendor, or an IT guy - if you don't know how to swim, now would be a good time to learn.

Lucke says it's important to remember that “Linux is a technology and an operating system - it's not a solution in and of itself. You need take the technology and configure it, massage it, and turn it into some kind of solution. To do that of course, first you have to identity a problem and pick the best technology to solve it. Linux is a solution to lots of problems, but not all problems.”

He says that the whole Linux discussion has become confused these days because different constituencies have different needs, and the problems that each one is addressing may or may not be best tackled with Linux: “Engineers, for instance, think Linux is great. For one thing, they can use it on hardware that might otherwise have been outdated - systems sitting around in a closet or in an empty cubicle which can't run Windows XP, for instance. Engineers can put Linux on those systems and do useful work. A cluster of 10 or 15 left-over machines can be used to run an application faster and at very little cost.”

“Also, engineers have inquisitive minds and want to explore the next and best thing - it's part of their makeup. They often have home networks where they're using Linux and becoming comfortable with the technology. Next thing you know, they're bringing Linux into the office and sticking it on the company's network. Engineers are enamored with Linux and want to play with it, control it, and believe they can use it to get a lot of work done.”

“But engineers are often focused on technology for technology's sake and that's causing a growing disconnect between the engineers and their IT support guys. Of course, there's always been a divide between traditional business-oriented issues in IT and the issues surrounding engineering IT - partly arising from the old joke that IT isn't rocket science.”

“Well, as it turns out - in the case of engineering IT, it is rocket science. And it doesn't help, that you often have IT people looking down their noses at the engineering people, while the engineering people don't think they're getting the kind of help they need - which in this case is migrating over to Linux. So, Linux is quickly becoming a flash point between the engineers who want to use it and their IT support people are going crazy trying to keep up.”

“Unfortunately, there's an underlying message here for the IT guys. Whether you like it or not, the engineer is going to bring Linux into the office and it's going to show up. So you might as well get used to looking for ways to use Linux to solve problems. And yes, you'll have to learn something new. But like everybody who works in high-tech, if you ever stop learning in this business, you'll be behind so fast it will make your head spin.”

“Actually, everybody needs to step back and look at the overall picture. The engineer's desktop is actually mutating today; its role is changing. Previously, everybody had to have a supercomputer on their desktop and that system had to be swapped out every 18 months to follow Moore's law. Today the situation is entirely different, however.”

“The brightest customers are now using the desktop as a display device to hook up to racks of powerful machines in the backroom - Solaris, HP-UX, Unix machines, or whatever - while still having enough power on the desktop to run things like Vmware [a virtual machine for MS Windows compatibility], which in turn allows the engineer to get a certain amount of work done locally. Meanwhile, there's load balancing and scheduling software that manages and runs the jobs on the backroom systems - the engineer's desktop being the display device capable of connecting to multiple environments and resources.”

“Don't misunderstand - we're not talking about a thin client here. One of the problems we found with configurations like [Oracle CEO] Larry Ellison's NC [network computer], for instance, was that the graphics performance was nowhere near what you needed to do useful work - even for the 2D performance associated with EDA work. The resources in terms of RAM and local storage were so thin and sparse that you were constantly going back and forth to the servers to get stuff across the network. But the network to most people's desktop has never been sufficient to handle that kind of traffic. Those NC-type devices were only designed for downloading small Java applets and so forth. So, it
turned out
that for engineering design, thin clients ended up serving as productivity inhibitors, not as productivity enhancers.”

“Today I prefer to think of the ideal engineering desktop in terms of a “very fat X-terminal,” or better yet, an X-terminal on steroids - one which talks to a Unix system using X-windows as a primary interface, but can also handle VNC, Windows remote desktop, HP's Golden Gate, ThinAnywhere, or other such display technologies. This type of overall system configuration should allow the customer to jump off the treadmill of updating the supercomputer on the engineer's desk every 18 months. Meanwhile, it should allow the engineer, in conjunction with the engineering IT staff, to decide which applications sitting on the engineer's desktop will be productivity tools and which
will serve primarily as a connection to resources out on the network.”

“Again, the big picture - there's a load sharing/scheduling facility that can launch and categorize jobs for the backroom. You put most of your compute power on compute racks in the backroom sitting on Linux, Solaris, HP-UX - whatever you choose to be the correct solution for the work you're doing. You collapse the high-speed network to the backroom and run cheap parallel fibers under the floor between the compute resources and storage. Therefore, by using the backroom resources, a virtual computer is created on the engineering workstation. The engineer can open a window on the desktop and the load balancing capabilities will choose which resources to run a job on. To the engineer, it
looks as if there's infinite compute power with which to run the job.”

“The engineer is happy - running multiple jobs, all at the same time - and oblivious to what's happening in the backroom. Meanwhile, the IT people can monitor, schedule, track, and buy just enough hardware to handle the load - but not too much. You can get 80% utilization on what you've got using this 3-tier architecture.”

“When I was at HP, one of the functions I performed was environmental assessment for companies that were looking to improve, mutate, or migrate their engineering environments. I've been inside 200 to 300 different engineering environments, all the way from the top EDA and mechanical CAD companies to the largest semiconductor companies in the world. I started seeing the patterns that worked and those that didn't work.”

“If you look at the architecture that I'm describing, it's something that can save money if properly installed. Certainly companies like Infinion, Intel, and Philips Research caught on early and figured out how this architecture could save them money. Today, all of the really sharp companies are doing it, as well.”

“So how does Linux fit into all of this? Certainly there are some tools that run very well on Linux, although we are seeing some limitations right now. The 32-bit Intel chips don't want to go over 2 Gbytes per job. However, if you are able to restrict the job size, it's certainly less expensive from an operating system and hardware point of view to have a rack of Linux systems for certain types of jobs.”

“At this point, engineering IT people might be coordinating a rack of Solaris, a rack of HP, and the job scheduling mechanisms that sorts it all out in order to figure out the best place to use which tool. Of course, there are also file servers and other IT infrastructure matters that need attention. Linux fits well into this infrastructure - for running web servers on a commodity box, for instance. And importantly, Linux is providing functionality that's running on commodity hardware with a 'license-lite' open source operating system - often a distinct advantage over HP-UX, AIX, Solaris,

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-- Peggy Aycinena, Contributing Editor.

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