One of the primary testaments to the success of Linux is its amazing dominance in the area of supercomputing. Today, all 500 of the world’s top 500 supercomputers are running Linux. In fact, this has been the case since Nov 2017. I know this because the TOP500 organization has been tracking the 500 most powerful commercially available computer systems since 1993 and their data documenting Linux’ takeover of supercomputing since 1998 is nothing short of inspiring. A graph of Linux’ ascension is available on this TOP500 page.
How did this happen?
A little history
As you may well know, Linux began life in 1991 as a personal project of Finnish student Linus Torvalds. He was 21. I first became aware of it several years later while working at Johns Hopkins UniversityP’s physics and astronomy department. I was managing the department’s network along and a number of servers with the help of a couple grad students.
At the time, I was intrigued, but had no way of imagining how an OS would rise to a notable pinnacle of success simply because source code was available to anyone who wanted to work with it. I could not have imagined that a significant group of large companies would grasp its value, work together and innovate in all the ways they have to make Linux what it is today.
Looking back, it’s clear that open source and intense collaboration were key along with a large score of contributors and collaborating organizations that includes Intel, Red Hat, Samsung, SUSE, IBM, NVIDIA and many others.
Simply browsing the corporate members of the Linux Foundation is likely to make your jaw drop.
The success of Linux can also be attributed to the fact that it is:
- Open source
Twice a year, in June and November, TOP500 releases it a list of the 500 most powerful computer systems ranked by their performance on something called the LINPACK Benchmark.
Twice a year, in June and November, TOP500’s announcements are made. Keep in mind that saying that Linux is running on all 500 of the top 500 doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t also running on of additional supercomputers. It only means that no one appears to be collecting or promoting those additional statistics.
I have heard it said, though not been able to verify, that Linux runs on more than 90% of public clouds, more than 60% of embedded systems and IoT devices, as much as 99% of supercomputers and more than 80% of smartphones. If these claims are even close to the truth, the success and versatility of Linux is even more astounding.
In the most recent TOP500 ranking, a Japanese supercomputer name Fugaku (derived from an alternate name for Mount Fuji) has taken the top spot and pushed the former leaders down a rank. Fugaku was co-developed by Riken and Fujitsu and uses Fujitsu’s 48-core A64FX ARM chip. This is the first time a computer based on ARM processors has topped the list.
Where we’re heading and how
Just recently, I had a chance to discuss the reasons for Linux’ amazing success in supercomputing with Stefanie Chiras, Vice President and General Manager, Red Hat Enterprise Linux Business Unit. She sees Linux as nearly synonymous with supercomputing and anticipates that it will continue providing the scale and flexibility to fuel innovation, high performance computing (HPC) and exascale (computing systems capable of calculating at least 1,018 floating point operations per second — 1 exaFLOPS) as we move forward. She also sees artificial intelligence and machine learning as gaining momentum from the power of Linux as we move forward.
As we spoke, it became clear that Stefanie Chiras also expects that containerization will be bringing supercomputing power to an enlarging number of researchers and analysts. As someone who has provided support to several groups of scientists and analysts over the last few decades, I can imagine what a difference this will make to their research and analysis.
She also wasn’t shy about mentioning that Red Hat Enterprise Linux is running on 4 of the top 10 supercomputers. This includes the new frontrunners – Fukaku, Summit and Sierra (the top three) along with Marconi-100 (9th in the list). One other important thing that she pointed out to me was that, beyond the common operating system, Fugaku, Summit and Sierra are all built from very “normal” hardware. Summit and Sierra are Power Systems-based, while Fugaku is the first Arm-powered supercomputer to top the list. The days of purpose-built, custom hardware and software in supercomputing are apparently over even though new and demanding workloads like AI and complex modeling require greater and greater power.
Looking back again, we used to have few people who could use supercomputers – because it was complicated and difficult. These days, with the power of Linux, supercomputers are becoming easier to use with simpler and more reproducible results. Supercomputing is getting into more hands and solving more problems — especially large scale and complicated ones.
I couldn’t have anticipated Linux’ success when I first became aware of it at JHU. While the thought of an open source operating system was intriguing, there was no way to foresee the buy-in that would come about as large organizations adopted the project and in time began working together to make it a huge success. There was no way to imagine that what I first saw as a modest, but useful OS would someday run on the fastest and most powerful computers in the world.
The character of open source and the willingness of many companies to see its value and work together have made Linux the top OS for both supercomputers and micro-devices. We can expect continued improvements in how the OS is deployed – including getting supercomputing into the hands of a lot more scientists and engineers – as we move forward. As a person who has spent close to 40 years working with Unix and Linux systems, I couldn’t be more pleased.
Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.