Linux Appliance Aids Virtual Server Setup

The new Levanta Intrepid M acts as hub for provisioning Linux servers without the need to load the operating system or applications directly onto each new server.
As demand grows for Linux as a data-center workhorse, tech vendors are developing more sophisticated ways to quickly bring up new Linux servers without the need to invest in new boxes or software. Systems administrators can already create virtual Linux servers using tools from EMC Corp.'s VMware unit or more recently through XenSource Inc., but a new network appliance from Levanta Inc. promises to take these virtualization capabilities to the next level.

The Levanta Intrepid M, available later this month, acts as hub for provisioning Linux servers without the need to load the operating system or applications directly onto each new server. Instead, the Intrepid M uses its MapFS file system to store the server operating system and any applications on the appliance, which features 1.4 terabytes of disk space. When the newly provisioned servers are ready to boot, they access the Intrepid over the network.

Levanta offers a marriage of server-provisioning technology and data virtualization, Illuminata research analyst Thomas Deane says. Some provisioning tools are either script- or image-based, which means the system administrator can push software out to one provisioned server at a time. Using the Intrepid, Levanta keeps the binaries in one repository on the network, and all the systems talk to that one repository. "When you want to make a change, you only have to make it in one place," he says.

Boscov's LLC has been running Levanta management and provisioning software on its mainframe and x86-based servers for years. Since April, the department store has been testing the Intrepid M. "We like the idea of not having to install individual Linux environments on all of our Linux-based Intel boxes," says Robert Schwartz, a Boscov's systems programmer.

Once the Linux operating system is loaded onto the appliance, a number of physical servers can access the operating system and boot over the network, Schwartz says. "This centralizes server administration and is particularly useful when distributing software patches," he says. "Without Levanta, you would have to install most of the software you need on each individual server."

This rapid provisioning of Linux could have great implications for creating grid and on-demand computing environments that shift computing power to match the network's workload. "You're not copying bits, you're pointing a server at the operating system," Deane says. "This lends itself to grid and on-demand computing and would also work well for managing desktop environments."

The sticking point is that grid, on-demand, and Linux desktop environments appeal to only a small segment of IT users. "Businesses in general are probably four or five years away from embracing on-demand or grid computing," Deane acknowledges.

Desktop Linux has also been slow to take off, in part because businesses have become so accustomed to Windows and in part because of a lack of Linux management tools. While Boscov's has no immediate plans to put the Intrepid into its production environment, Schwartz says the device will be useful when the company replaces its current point-of-sale terminals with Linux-based desktops. "We're thinking about putting an Intrepid at each store and having registers boot off the Levanta box," he says, adding that the company has no time frame as yet for such a deployment. "This would simplify administration and management."

Levanta plans to release two additional versions of the Intrepid appliance by the end of the year. The Intrepid B will act as a failover appliance for IT environments with high-availability requirements and include software that enables continuous real-time data synchronization between the M and B appliances. The Intrepid S will include 2 terabytes of storage and be used by companies looking for more storage capacity than is available with the M appliance. Although Levanta's technology works only with Linux servers, the company plans to support servers running Sun Microsystems' new open-source OpenSolaris operating system early in 2006.

Levanta's planned support for OpenSolaris is interesting because that operating system includes a feature called Solaris Containers that allows the creation of multiple virtual machines under one instance of the operating system. The Solaris Containers resemble Levanta's approach, where each application on a server can be assigned its own memory, CPU, and storage resources but function under one running instance of the operating system.

This evolution of server virtualization in open-source environments is attracting attention from top companies, although the technology still has a long way to go for some. Visa USA Inc. is considering Sun's Solaris Containers technology. "We are totally in support of these developments," says Sara Garrison, Visa's senior VP of technology development for network and open systems. "But we are running the world's largest payment system and are not in production with any of it. The technology has to be sufficiently mature so that it can handle unprecedented volumes of activity." Garrison says that Visa is testing Linux virtual server technology from VMware and that she's scheduled to meet with Sun within the next month to discuss the vendor's Solaris Containers technology.