[Beowulf] Re: MS Cray

Robert G. Brown rgb at phy.duke.edu
Wed Sep 17 14:49:12 PDT 2008

On Wed, 17 Sep 2008, Joe Landman wrote:

> Have you ever administered a lab full of these units?  You need as much help 
> as you can get to administer the windows machines.  Sadly, while claims of 
> there being more windows admins are true (thats not the sad part) you need 
> (far) more to administer fewer windows machines than the fewer admins needed 
> for more Linux machines (that is the sad part).

There was a lot to parse there, but I think I precisely agreee, and sort
of said that.

> We have seen 2 full time admins handle 4000+ Linux machines with time to 
> develop software to make their lives easier (Incyte), as compared to seeing 
> 10 windows admins struggle to keep 100 machines each up to date.

Yeah, that's precisely our experience here as well.

But somehow, in spite of the fact that hardware is CHEAP and it is
PEOPLE that are expensive, you never see this actually discussed in a
CBA.  Microsoft has worked near-miracles of FUD-seeding to convince
people that alas don't know any better that it is somehow the other way

> But that is straying a bit.  Large organizations often are not admin rich, 
> they tend to try to cut out costs.  Admins == costs.  Admins need as much 
> help as they can possibly get.  If for $150/machine in a large organization, 
> you can take away some level of their pain, this might be worth more than the 
> cost of the additional healthcare coverage, heartburn medicine, and 
> upper/lower GI series needed ...

I actually do a bit of consulting -- nothing like what you do -- for an
organization that runs a lot of Windows boxes.  It drives me absolutely
nuts.  If they were running a set of 40+ plus Linux desktops and a small
stack of Linux-only servers, I could manage the entire operation, close
to 24x7, in even MY copious spare time (not) with time to spare.  If
anybody had a problem, I could trivially fix it from home.  And they'd
basically never crash or (with 40 clients to 3+servers) EVER EVER load
the network or the servers to the point where I could detect a
meaningful load, given what they are doing.  I could be absolutely
certain, when problems occurred, where they occurred and why.

With a mixed lin-win operation (several key linux servers) it is
maddening.  The Windows systems crash.  They hang, for no reason, even
if they aren't "doing" anything.  Unless one is ubervigilant (or in
spite of it) they get viruses.  The primary operational server for the
whole LAN is linux, and almost never has a load average over around 0.3,
yet responsiveness drops to near zero in resonance with the primary
Windows server -- that does almost nothing that any human can see that
should be involved with the primary work tool -- peaking in load.

Then there is messing with licensing, buying copies of Office where
needed, installing AV everywhere, getting the printers to work,
configuring the systems to "join a workgroup" and access server-based
disk.  Windows is "easy"?  Cheap to manage?  Fast and efficient in a LAN
client/server context?

I see only two advantages to Windows over Linux these days, and only one
of them matters.  The one that matters is there is still a lot of
software that only runs under Windows.  Even for the application that is
the core application in this organization, where there actually is a
linux version of the server, the clients only run under Windows.  That's
it, right there.  The other advantage is that Windows still has a slim
edge in hardware drivers and support -- one is "guaranteed" that Windows
will install on anything you buy and work with all the hardware simply
by virtue of the fact that it comes preinstalled with Windows already
working with it.  That is in part why many vendors -- even enlightened
ones that do have linux-based servers for their clients -- still require
windows for the clients.  They can be sure that the printers will work,
that (however slow and clunky the configuration) the NIC will function,
they can "borrow" things like MS Word and use them in place of writing
an actual printer stack of their own (yes, people use MS Word as printer
interface/library, believe it or not).  They can be sure that their
product will run on NEARLY any hardware package a user comes up with.

Part of even this is FUD, these days.  The last few years, Linux has
worked nearly flawlessly out of the box with nearly all desktop
hardware, and is doing pretty decently even on rapidly varying laptop
hardware.  Microsoft has once again broken MS Office relative to all
previous versions (while converting to an "open" XML for the docs
themselves) , leveling the playing field with Open Office and providing
it with a surprising opportunity to pull very nearly dead even.  Vista
of Evil sucks and everybody knows it even if MS tries to convince them
otherwise with their "Mohave" ads.  Apple (running basically Unix)
openly mocks Microsoft on TV and people believe their ads.  Cracks --
some of them quite serious -- have appeared in MS's once invincible

It's hard to say what will happen over the next year or two.  I've been
predicting MS's crash-n-burn for years now, and will readily admit I've
been wrong at least about the time frame -- it has taken Linux longer to
get to where it is now than I expected, and the mass of all those WinXX
boxes out there proved more robust and long lived than I expected
(helped considerably by the fact that XPpro, SP2 and then SP3, did not
really suck all that much outside of its absurd price and the long waits
to update through limited bandwidth lines with arcane license validation
tools in the pathway.  However, I also remember DEC -- one year it
looked rock-solid, then in the twinkling of a year it failed to make a
hardware cut and in a year more it disappeared without a trace after
decades of phenomenal growth.  I remember Apple sinking almost to the
point of bankruptcy.  I remember OS/2.  There is nothing more fickle and
cruel than the public when the price/performance of something like a
computer OS tips past a certain balance point.

Ubuntu, at long last, has even put desktop linux out there with enough
hardware support and "stuff" that many former Windows users are finding
themselves quite content with it.  One of these years RH or some other
big player is going to realize two things:

   a) Desktop Linux, sold for 1/3 or 1/6 of the price of any version of
Vista (where the price buys a modest amount of SUPPORT, not the
software), can make them small money over large volume and actually be a
big source of profit.

   b) TV ads work.  Even as a loss leader, to shake confidence in
Microsoft and to convince people that they can actually run linux on a
desktop and get all their work and a lot of their play done, with less
hassle and expense an ad campaign targeted at consumers is totally worth
it.  Look at Apple's success at portraying MSWin as the brain-dead piece
of trash that it is.

Are we at the tipping point?  Who knows.  MS Windows 7 is supposed to
come to the rescue about now and revert to non-suckiness per desktop,
but Server 2008 and a LAN full of clients still looks nightmarishly
difficult to install, maintain, manage, support.  If only users -- or
corporate buyers and administrators -- WOULD factor in the $200/month
that MS thinks is a "bargain" for lease/management per box into the
overall cost of their system, MS might well continue their slow spiral
down into V7.  I don't see any killer apps on the horizon, and
"transparency" (at the cost of 4 GB systems and immense slowness) is
obvious hype and glitz without substance.  As the marginal difference
between Win and Lin functionality on an installed desktop continues to
shrink, commercial third party applications may soon by MS's ONLY edge,
and I've noted that the commercial 3rd party app aisles for Win continue
to shrink at e.g. Best Buy (except for games).  After all, why develop
for Windows, given the CERTAINTY that any killer app you develop and
release will be cloned by MS and that they'll drive you out of business
(or if they feel nice, buy you out of business, their option) at any

The really good developers work elsewhere, these days, and the
entrepreneurial excitement is drained off into Google, into Amazon, into
open source, into the web (where MS is far from monolithic and where
truly large scale Win-only operations are rather scarce).

Things are dicey.  The economy sucks, companies look for ways to cut
corners.  Suddenly that enormous pile of Windows licenses, the
one-admin-per-fifty systems looks exorbitant and expensive.  Somebody
tells them a Linux admin can do 200+ systems with no license fees (and a
lot more security and fewer user headaches) and the "luxury" of
$200/month Window admin is a real candidate for the block (as in


Robert G. Brown                            Phone(cell): 1-919-280-8443
Duke University Physics Dept, Box 90305
Durham, N.C. 27708-0305
Web: http://www.phy.duke.edu/~rgb
Book of Lilith Website: http://www.phy.duke.edu/~rgb/Lilith/Lilith.php
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