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Terra Soft CEO Kai Staats on Linux and the Mac

By Staff Writer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Jun 22, 2004 6:00 AM PT

In the late 1990s, Terra Soft CEO Kai Staats was called upon to design and build a Web server, and he faced a unique dilemma. He wanted to use Macs, but the pre-Unix Mac OS of that era was just not reliable for mission-critical services.

Terra Soft CEO Kai Staats on Linux and the Mac

Staats was familiar with Linux and appreciated its stability; however, he didn't much fancy having to buy an Intel system to run it. So he ignored the conventional wisdom, bought Mac hardware, and then, with the help of his IT team, ported Linux to the PowerPC (in that case a Mac G3). Thus, Yellow Dog Linux for the PowerPC was born.

Since its introduction, YDL has captured the attention of several sectors, ones that would like to use Linux yet would like to take advantage of the high-performance computing benefits that the RISC PowerPC architecture can provide.

Last year, Terra Soft won a contract to build a sonar imaging system for the U.S. Navy through defense contractor Lockheed Martin that would employ YDL and Apple Xserves. The company's client list also includes such technological heavyweights as Caltech, Stanford University, Lawrence Livermore, Boeing and several arms of NASA.

MacNewsWorld had the opportunity to ask Staats several questions about Linux, PowerPC and YDL's partnership with Apple. Here's what he had to say:

MNW: What led to the formation of Terra Soft?

Kai Staats: This is best described by this first public presentation of our effort with Linux on Macs. It motivated a senior manager of business markets development at Apple to meet with us in Colorado, thereby encouraging us to move on a Linux OS in order to bring a professional distribution to PowerPC hardware. He saw an opportunity to move more Apple hardware than through Mac OS 9 (and even OS X now) alone. His vision was accurate. Even today we call upon him for guidance.

MNW: An August 1999 Linux Magazine article discusses some of the reasons why RISC "PowerPC" processors are superior to CISC Intel ones. To what degree do you agree with that assessment?

Staats: It truly depends upon the type of code being implemented and where the CPU is used. There are certainly times when a US$50 CPU and $35 motherboard are appropriate, but the PowerPC is purchased for its high-end performance.

Consider these four things: price, performance, power consumption and density.

The first two play a significant role across most every market, and the last two come to play in the high-performance computing arena, such as clusters and embedded devices. PowerPC is competitive with x86 and now ia64. Apple does not offer a low-end product to compete with $300 computers, but if you want something that performs, then a G5 will give any Pentium, Xeon or Opteron a run for its money.

MNW: What motivated you to port Linux to PowerPC? Whatever you may think of Intel, why didn't you just stick with that platform?

Staats: The simple answer is: We were a Mac shop.

I have used Macs since college and have no affection for PCs. Affection, intuition, and enthusiasm are foundation to any healthy organization of any size. Why go to work if you don't love it at some level?

Things unfolded, motivated by an internal drive. It felt right, and we made it happen. Initially [we were] guided by intuition, [and] later [we were] backed by spreadsheets, white papers and market studies. It seems to have worked.

As the Apple "Shutting Down NT" article states, I wanted Mac hardware, while Dan [Burcaw] wanted Linux. And away we went.

When things got serious, a business formed around this creature we had created. It breathed and lived and suddenly, we had to feed it. One of our first investors offered this bit of wisdom, "If you want to make money, buy something you can't afford."

In some respects, we jumped into Terra Soft Solutions not knowing how it would unfold and learned a lot of lessons the hard way. I am not certain I would do it any different, for I live by lessons learned -- but it has been a challenging path and we are now a strong team for time spent in this journey. I am fortunate to have such a fun, energetic, capable team that refused to quit or give in to the fear of failure.

In summary, we were -- and continue to be -- a 99.9 percent Mac shop. We didn't start with x86, nor do we now desire to compete in that space. There were once more than 120 Linux distributions, only 5 of which were for PowerPC.

Now there are roughly a dozen distros remaining. Only Terra Soft is 100 percent focused on PowerPC. Our undying focus has built a powerful vision now embraced through our growing, contractual relationships with IBM, Motorola and top-10 VAR relationship with Apple because our expertise grants us unique sales opportunities.

MNW: I have heard many analysts assert that a "Lintel" box is cheaper -- and by implication "better" -- than a PowerPC solution. What are your thoughts on this?

Staats: I have not seen this implication. But to be fair, as I stated above, it depends upon the code, environment in which the system is running and of course personal preference. No solution wins 100 percent of the time.

If you choose an environment in which x86 excels, then it appears better. If you choose an environment in which PowerPC excels, the opposite is true. We specialize in high-performance computing, for which PowerPC -- with the advent of the G5 -- truly takes flight.

MNW: Do you see a chance for significant market growth for Linux on the PowerPC? Who would be your target audience for that growth, and what does Terra Soft plan to do to stimulate that growth?

Staats: There is a wonderful way of visualizing this by means of a circle. At the top of the circle is the home user who demands nothing less than an elegant GUI and a suite of applications that offer a wide variety of hobbyist, educational, entertainment and organizational functions.

Moving clockwise around the circle, many of those applications cross over into an office environment. OpenOffice, KOffice, Gnumeric and a variety of Web browsers and database front ends offer a complete solution capable of interacting with non-Linux [operating systems] and associated, exchanged data. Much of this interaction is with the back-end server or servers.

Near the bottom, the server is managed by the System Administrator who also uses Yellow Dog Linux, not only on his or her desktop but also on the server or servers. It is highly advantageous for the Sys Admin to maintain the same OS as that used by engineering, marketing and sales as it reduces the complexity of data transfer.

This same circle continues to the ultimate server -- the high-performance computing (HPC) cluster node. This highly focused machine has one task in life--to crunch data. While a mission critical server requires stability, a compute node also requires optimized code. This is often developed through a graphical environment, identical in most respects to that which the home user demands.

Each point on the circle reinforces the whole with a demand for improved apps, interface, stability, speed and interoperability. The optimized code of the node, the stability of the server, the interconnectivity of the office apps -- they come full circle back to the home user who now enjoys an improved desktop.

But we don't make money on the software. Confused?

Simply interject the sale of a computer at each point on the circle and Terra Soft is a healthy company with a great deal of potential, as is demonstrated now with our sale to home users, offices, server environments -- and of course HPC for universities, NASA, the [Department of Energy] and [the Department of Defense].

Per the equation I presented earlier: More power in less space; less power consumption at a better price. It really is that simple. Making it happen is of course the challenge.

Like the creature we gave life to over five years ago, this circle builds upon itself and grows -- more of its own accord than when we started. It's a wonderful process to be a part of. I enjoy it immensely.

MNW: In a recent press release, Terra Soft announced a contract to develop an IBM 970 Evaluation Board Support Package. What is your relationship with IBM? Are you planning to partner with IBM on future development of Linux for PowerPC, and would you consider yourself the primary developer for IBM in this area?

Staats: We are an IBM Business Partner as a Value-Added Reseller. We are licensed to sell the BladeCenter JS20 and same-family products with Yellow Dog Linux preinstalled (our value-add). We helped build the relationship between Momentum Computer and IBM two years ago, which grew into Momentum's design, development and manufacturing of the official IBM 970 Eval Board for which we are creating an official Board Support Package.

We are not yet a primary developer for IBM, but I believe we have that potential. While IBM has a much stronger financial relationship with Red Hat and SuSE through larger contracts and investment, a number of the PowerPC engineers have used Yellow Dog Linux for internal development. This route of relationship building takes more time, but may also form a strong, mutually beneficial relationship. This is just now coming to fruition.

MNW: There's a common perception that Linux isn't ready for the desktop -- yet you're releasing YDL 4.0 and Y-HPC this month? What is your response to these perceptions?

Staats: I have not seen this statement for nearly two years. Linux is widely used as a desktop environment in all markets, by all walks of users. It's stable, fast, flexible, complete. Not an issue.

MNW: Describe some of the more important features that will come with YDL 4.0 and Y-HPC. How does Yellow Dog plan to leverage the 64-bit architecture of the G5 chip? Also will YDL 4 run on ancient Macs that cannot take advantage of OS X?

Staats: Yellow Dog Linux 4.0 is our first distribution built from Fedora, the reformation of a community effort built around the Red Hat foundation. This marks a more challenging development process for us, but ultimately, a more community-driven product if you remember the circle I described earlier. Yellow Dog Linux 4.0 is 32-bit and supports USB-G3 through dual G5 Power Macs Towers.

We have chosen to no longer officially support the beige G3 product line -- my personal favorite for its incredibly robust offerings. This does not mean it will not work -- simply we will not apply internal resources to test these systems. We had to draw the line to focus on quality over quantity.

Y-HPC is a 64-bit OS that also supports the G5 towers but adds the G5 Xserves and cluster nodes. [This architecture] is imperative for particular types of high-performance computing, such as weather modeling, particle-physics research, structural engineering and nuclear research, where the effort to simulate the real world requires a great deal of precision and a lot of RAM.

MNW: What does Yellow Dog Linux offer that Mac OS X doesn't? In other words, what might motivate people to switch platforms -- or use Mac OS X in some situations and YDL in others on a dual-boot machine?

Staats: OS X is a great OS. Smartest thing Apple ever did. But in the home and office space, it often comes down to personal or corporate preference.

A lot of people run both [operating systems, either] dual boot or OS X on top of YDL through Mac-on-Linux. Yellow Dog Linux is a free download and does offer more than 1,000 packages which cover the full circle of users -- in other words, home, office, server, code development and HPC. Yellow Dog Linux is a bit snappier, more flexible, and scalable.

Also take into consideration the heterogeneous nature of modern offices, server rooms and clusters. This means a wide variety of CPUs, motherboards, and devices, all of which are expected to talk to each other. OS X runs only on Apple hardware, while Yellow Dog Linux is built -- and nearly identical to -- Red Hat for x86 and ia64. The migration of code from Red Hat to YDL is painless.

While binaries must be recompiled across systems, they do not have to be "ported" as from Red Hat to OS X, which involves a more cumbersome process. And Yellow Dog Linux offers the entire Fedora (which closely mirrors Red Hat) suite of packages, so most expected binaries are ready to go.

This concept of seamless code migration offers a homogeneous OS for heterogeneous hardware. It is imperative in an anti-Microsoft, "We don't want to be nailed-down to one thing anymore" world. We want a choice.

MNW: To what degree do your developers cross-pollinate with Apple developers? Are applications being developed that can run on both YDL and OS X?

Staats: Interestingly enough, there is a growing number of Apple engineers running YDL. At first it was to compare the two OSes. Now it is to create apps for both environments due to customer demand -- and the realization that some things just run faster on Yellow Dog Linux and most likely always will.

Keep in mind that only runtime languages such as Java, PHP, Python and shell scripts run seamlessly from OS X to YDL and back again. Compiled binaries must be recompiled.

MNW: With the Y-HPC beta, you are able to offer Xserve G5 cluster nodes Linux functionality. What has been the response to this? Will this option cause more people to consider the Xserve G5, both in single and cluster configurations as an option -- and for whom would this option be superior to the Lintel configuration?

Staats: Overwhelmingly positive. Just this week alone we received, installed, and shipped three drives for major DoD contractors who need to run with a beta -- now -- in order to meet their midsummer deadlines.

MNW: Your site mentions that you have a unique VAR license with Apple. How close is your relationship with Apple? Do you find Apple's hardware to be superior to that of competing vendors either because of the PowerPC chip or the hardware construction in and of itself?

Staats: Yes, we are the only company in the world to have a written license stating we can pre-install Linux and maintain the full Apple warranty. As for the relationship, it improves every year. It just takes time for the individuals whose life it is to make certain OS X is a top-notch product to accept and understand that we are not out to kill OS X -- rather, we want to sell hardware. Selling hardware is what OS X is all about. We may push YDL over OS X, but that is because that is what our customers demand and that is what we do. Ultimately, everyone has the same goal -- deliver a really good integrated solution.

And yes, Apple's hardware is very well designed. Fast, robust, elegant and exciting.

MNW: Are you and others at Terra Soft planning to attend this year's WWDC? If so, in what capacity?

Staats: Yes, as a normal attendee with the backpack stuffed full of goodies.

We have a good relationship with Apple Developer Relations [and have received] a great deal of support this past year. However, WWDC is geared toward OS X.

I do wish there were room for Linux too, but I have not had the time to push this. Who knows, maybe we'll start a YDL-DC someday.

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