Zooming in: Linux power quest

By Hiawatha Bray

TECHNOLOGY & INNOVATION SECTOR REPORT / HARDWARE

When the leading maker of dial-up telephone modems, 3Com Inc., announces that it’s getting out of the business, you might think it’s a sign that old-fashioned modems are doomed.

But then, you’re not Frank Manning, president of Boston-based Zoom Telephonics Inc., a major modem producer. Manning says his company, like 3Com, sees booming demand for high-speed cable and DSL connections to the Internet. But Zoom has no intention of bailing out of the market for traditional modems.

“We will continue to support our Zoom and Hayes brand modem customers and will continue to develop new modem products,” Manning said last week. He added that having a strong presence in the modem business should boost demand for more advanced Zoom products.

Just last year, Zoom reinforced its commitment to the modem business through its purchase of the US assets of Hayes Corp. Before falling on hard times in the 1990s, Hayes had been the dominant maker of telephone modems and had actually created the software used throughout the industry to control the way modems work.

Zoom says it is investing most of its research and development budget into various broadband technologies that are likely to supersede traditional modems. Zoom already makes a line of cable modems, and is working on DSL products.

But there will still be improvements in traditional modems. A new standard called V.92 is expected this year. The V.92 modems will allow for “call waiting,” so that a user can interrupt an Internet session, take a voice phone call, then hop right back onto the Net.

The skinny on servers

For most of us, an appliance is something that keeps the beer cold. For many companies on the Internet, however, an appliance is a simple but powerful plug-and-play server computer. When an online firm needs to boost its computing capacity, many rely on server appliances from Randolph-based Network Engines Inc.

Setting up an Internet server can be a daunting task, even for someone with technical skill. Network Engines offers servers preloaded with the Linux operating system or with Microsoft Corp.’s Windows 2000 operating system. Each server is about as thick as a pizza box, designed to snap easily into the mounting racks favored at heavy-duty server installations.

Network Engines' skinny boxes are making a surprisingly large splash. The hot Linux computer maker VA Linux Systems is sticking its label on a box made by Network Engines, and IBM Corp.’s Netfinity 4000R server is a Network Engine in disguise.

Linux power quest

Speaking of IBM, that company is throwing a bunch of its server computers to the wolves in an effort to hasten commercial applications of the Linux operating system.

In cooperation with the University of New Mexico, IBM is hitching together 256 of its Netfinity server computers into a giant Linux supercomputer called LosLobos, Spanish for “wolfpack.” They’re using Netfinity. Each of the Netfinity computers will contain a pair of Intel Corp. microprocessors, for a total of 512 processors. The result, say IBM researchers, will be a supercomputer cluster capable of performing up to 357 billion calculations per second.

NASA scientists first began building computing superclusters in 1994, in a project called Beowulf. Since then, universities around the world have constructed ever more powerful clusters, based on standard PC hardware and the Linux operating system. But few of these Beowulf-type systems are used for commercial applications. They’re used for ultra-sophisticated scientific research, such as analyzing the planet’s atmosphere.

But IBM says it hopes to use LosLobos to develop Linux-based business software that fully exploits the power of the system. That could mean a boost for IBM’s e-business efforts and for the company’s aggressive new move into Linux software.

“We’re about 2 to 3 percent into what the Internet is going to do for the world,” said John Patrick, IBM’s vice president of Internet technology. As merchants seek to add more and better services, they’ll need all the computing power they can muster. “Down the road,” said Patrick, “we believe that Linux clusters are going to be as important for e-business as they are for modeling the weather.”

Each week, Sector Report will examine a different segment of the high-tech economy. Next week: Business-to-Business.

David A. Bader
David A. Bader
Distinguished Professor and Director of the Institute for Data Science

David A. Bader is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Computer Science at New Jersey Institute of Technology.