Linux 2.4.0 kernel: ready for the big time!

The first week of the new millennium started like most other, except perhaps for a few more hangovers, and the fact that the trains in Norway refused to run. Apparently, after IT managers the world over spent billions on the Y2K bug, no-one thought to test if there might be issues with the real millennium roll-over; resetting the train’s computer dates to Dec 1, 2000 got them running again. There were actually other cases of true millennium computer problems, including cash registers which thought it was 1901 (but, surprise, weren’t offering 1901 prices) and cell phones which refused to show the correct date. But buggy software wasn’t what I found interesting this new year; after all, who has to look far to find that?

Instead, what caught my attention this new year, along with a great many other geeks, was the release on January 4th of the new Linux kernel, version 2.4.0. The announcement by Linus Torvalds, the “benevolent dictator” of Linux, on the site received an unprecedented 100,000 reads. The download site’s 100Mb connection was saturated for days.

Why the excitement? After all, the current stable Linux kernel, version 2.2.18, is already a very capable system, running most of the world’s web servers, a great many intranet servers, and now deployed as a desktop environment in greater numbers than the MacOS (much to the surprise and resentment of Mac lovers everywhere.)

The truth of the matter is, however, than the Linux 2.2.x series had a few shortcomings. While fine for a desktop user or a mid-level server, big-iron boxes were beyond its ability. For example, while 2.2.x was “limited” to 4 Gigabytes of memory, 4 CPUs and supported (only) 32 thousand users, the new 2.4.0 supports 64 GB of memory, at least 16 processors, and 4.2 billion users. Given two 2.4.0 based machines, you could provide everyone on the planet with their own e-mail account!

While obviously most users would never encounter these limitations, their elimination are important for enterprise deployment. There are also many other areas where the Linux kernel 2.4.0 provides improvement to the “average” user in addition to the enterprise, including improved networking, device support and overall memory handing.

There was once a time when Sun, IBM, SGI, Microsoft and HP could claim to be better for big-iron machines; no longer. This probably explains why, for example, IBM has pledged to offer Linux on every single model of machine they make, why Sun is warming to NFS under Linux, why SGI are releasing key software technologies as open source, and why HP have recently retained a well-known open source advicate as their head of Linux promotion.

In perhaps the most dramatic development, IBM have recently committing to spending 1 billion dollars this year on Linux development, and five billion over the next four years. This will include, but not be limited to, bringing 1,500 developers to bare on Linux software. As an example of their seriousness, Linux has been announced as running on IBM’s just released zSeries mainframes, beating even their own proprietary z/OS (formerly MVS) to market.

Similarly, it is well known that Linux was the first operating system to boot under Intel’s new 64 bit Merced processor, now renamed Itanium. 2.4.0 is basically ready and waiting for Itanium to come out, later this year, and has been already working on other 64 bit processors like Sparc and Alpha for years. Linux will likely be the only operating system able to run in true 64 bit mode on the Itanium chip for several months after its release.

Looking back over the last year that I’ve been producing this column for the Business Examiner, it’s interesting to note how far Linux (and open source software in general) has come. Back then, Linux was a long-shot that Bill Gates, then CEO of Microsoft, claimed he never heard about from customers. Earlier this month, speaking to an Internet conference hosted by Morgan Stanly Dean Witter, current CEO Steve Balmer stated that Linux is Microsoft’s number one threat, ahead of Sun, Oracle and AOL.

To quote Mahatma Gandhi: “First they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” Without meaning to mix cultures, one word comes to mind: Atari. We’re now in the end-game; this should be interesting.

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.

The Global Positioning System

The Navstar GPS offers a reliable, inexpensive means of determining where you are, anywhere in the world, no matter the weather conditions. Becoming fully operational Dec 8th, 1993, GPS receivers have become a key navigational aid to mariners and hikers alike. GPS was originally intended for military use only, to aid solders in battle, and is run by the US DoD. Civilian use was planned for only after the 1983 Korean Air Lines 007 disaster caused by Cold War tensions and poor navigation. Known as the Standard Positioning Service (SPS), it is less accurate than the military Precise Positioning Service (PPS).

Prior to May 1st, 2000, something called selective availability (SA) intentionally degraded the accuracy of SPS to be plus or minus about 80 meters. Turned off by an executive order of Bill Clinton to foster commercial uses of GPS, SPS can now provide 20 meter accuracy. SA can be turned back on over large areas during times of hostilities, however.

As one might expect, GPS receivers have followed most other electronic devices down the path of becoming smaller, faster, better and cheaper over time. You can purchase a small hand-held unit for less than $200 with better accuracy than much larger units made only a couple of years ago.

GPS receivers are also available as PCMCIA cards for laptops and some hand-helds. There’s a plug-in GPS module for Handspring Visors, or you can simply interface a hand-held GPS receiver with a mobile (hand-held or laptop) computer using a serial interface.

A programmable device knows where it is. This is where the magic begins.

Plotting the current position on a dynamic map has been used for years, starting with boaters using laptop computers. More recently embedded solutions have appeared, providing drivers with assistance in road navigation. “Turn left at next set of lights.”

With the addition of a wireless data-link, mobile assets can be monitored from a dispatch or management center. In the case of a taxi fleet, the nearest available unit can automatically be routed to a fare. Alerts can be raised for anomalies, such as vehicles being off-route or over-speed.

What is perhaps a little startling is this is all going to be common within 10 years. GPS receivers will, in that time, become a default feature of most cell phones. This is in order to satisfy a requirement in many jurisdictions of cell phone companies to be able to provide the location of callers to 911.

Mass production will continue to drive down the cost of receivers. High-end features like the OnStar GPS navigation system will become default options for most new vehicles. Combined with cheap two-way wireless networking, children borrowing the family car may never again feel quite the same sense of temporary freedom as current, and past, youth have.

This is all, of course, very exciting. Hungry for a really good Ginger Fried Beef? Your PDA will know where to go, and will direct you. Or, if you’re using an old model which doesn’t have a GPS built in, it will instead use Bluetooth to talk to your cellphone, which will.

Of course, like physics and its energy and mass, information technology has convenience and security — if you gain one, you lose the other. How are people going to react knowing their position is always being monitored? It can often be a benefit, but it isn’t necessarily always so.

I suspect it will soon become an accepted relaxation of the rights to privacy in exchange for the privilege of licensing and operating a motor vehicle. Driving behavior will likely improve considerably after historical “black-box” logs from GPS navigation systems start being introduced as evidence during accident investigations. But, when out for a walk, will you be able to turn your position beacon off without also losing your phone?

It’s interesting to think that people born today are likely to never know what it’s like to be lost. Just like the rest of us don’t think anything of reading after dark. Perhaps vacation spots will start installing GPS jammers, much like cell-phone jamming is common today.

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.