One of the best kept secrets in the server business is how Dell is a contributor to the open source community. Dell? Contributing to open source? Why would it want to do that? Well, to sell more systems, of course. In particular, to sell more Linux-based clusters of Dell systems.
In my podcast audio interview with Dell's Reza Rooholamini (download the MP3, or learn how to have them automatically downloaded while you're sleeping), the company's director of enterprise solutions talks about its philosophy of scaling out versus scaling up (hint: it currently has no interest in 8-way-and-up servers); the sorts of open source projects that he likes to get Dell's engineers involved in; and why, one day, people may be able to order bundled clusters much the same way they can order desktop computers from Dell.com today. Here's a sampling of what Rooholamini said:
Rooholamini on Dell's installed based and how clusters will be bought: We have installations that go up to 4000 machines that are interconnected into a cluster [running Linux]. To make these types of systems available to the masses, we have created bundles. You can order a bundle of 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, or 256 machines. Basically, with a few mouse clicks on a screen, our salespeople can sell you these bundles and you shouldn't be surpised if some day in the near future, the ability will be provided to our customes to go onto Dell.com and order a supercomputer online.
Rooholamini on what Dell includes in a cluster: The fundamental software there is the operating system....mainly Linux... and then you have a level of middleware on these machines that's the piece of software that allows them to cooperate [with each other]. The industry standard technology for that is MPI -- message passing interface. So we offer that as well -- an open source version of it that we qualify [to work on our systems]. We get that MPI implemenation from our partner MSTI. [Editor's note: MSTI has been renamed to Verari Systems.] For the software management stack, we have a partnership with Platform Computing for its open source ROCKS package, which is basically a suite of cluster management and utilities applications. And then there's also OSCAR (Open Source Cluster Application Resources).
On Dell's contributions to the open source community: [Our engineers] are working with the open source community to make sure the right features get into these stacks and making sure the stack works very well with our server platforms -- the stack doesn't break the server and the server doesn't break the stack...We have people that are well known in the open source community and they spend a good portion of their time putting back into the community. For example, one of our latest contributions is a package known as DKMS (Dynamic Kernel Module Support. If you develop your drivers using DKMS, then if you have to change the driver, that's all you have to change. You don't have to reinstall the kernel or the entire OS. We architected the framework, coded it, put it into the [open source] community, got a lot of feedback and, as result, gained a lot of acceptance.
During the interview, I asked Rooholamini if, by contributing code to the open source community, it was giving its competitors access to the same technology that makes Dell's servers attractive to its customers. As Dell execs often do, Roooholamini toed the official "Dell is all about industry standards line." Of course, in the long haul, it may not matter. With HP's enterprise division barely treading water and IBM attempting to send its PC company to China, Dell has pummeled its key competitors into submission. If the trend continues, and Dell, which is more a bank than it is a systems company, is the only company left standing, it won't matter that it competitors had access to Dell's code.