Saturday, 12 November 2016 03:21

SUSE first enterprise Linux to be ported to 64-bit ARM

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From little things, big things grow: Alex Graf. From little things, big things grow: Alex Graf. Sam Varghese

Five years ago, four developers at SUSE Linux sat down to discuss an idea they thought had considerable merit: porting SUSE Linux to the ARM platform.

Nobody else had an inkling that Alex Graf, Dirk Muller, Adrian Schroter and Andreas Faerber had even met, leave alone an idea of what they were talking about.

Graf expressed no surprise about this when he spoke to iTWire about it on the sidelines of SUSECon 2016, the annual SUSE Linux conference that is being held in Washington DC this week.

From that meeting grew the work that led to porting SUSE Linux Enterprise Server to 64-bit ARM, the first Linux distro to run on this platform.

"At that point (in 2011) we sat down and had the discussion we did because we saw the emerging market for ARM," Graf said. "Remember, this was much before the Raspberry Pi had made its appearance."

Graf said SUSE had hack weeks twice a year when employees could have free time to follow a project of their own choosing. So the four met during this period and started the work on porting openSUSE to ARM.

It didn't happen overnight and they had to return to work on it the next year too. There was no physical processor so they wrote code to emulate the behaviour of ARM. In 2014, the specifications of 64-bit ARM were being defined and the quartet decided to embrace this platform.

"The hardware came out only in 2015. Even silicon vendors did not have it," Graf said. "Our 32-bit port was complete but then in open source you keep improving things so it wasn't really done."

Using emulation, the first commercial enterprise distribution was built on 64-bit ARM in 2015.

The management became aware of their work as awards are often given for work done during hack weeks.

The advantage that ARM has is cheaper processing power. A 64-bit ARM powered microserver has a thermal design power between 10 and 45 watts. A conventional x86 server consumes more than 90 watts.

ARM servers also reduce other data-centre costs like cooling.

Unlike with the x86 platform, ARM processors have had no standardisation, but that is changing, Graf says. "With Server Base Information Architecture and Server Base Boot Requirements, ARM is defining standards and thus after these come into use, one could theoretically port an operating system to one processor and then run it on any ARM processor."

Currently, the 64-bit port of SLES will run on processors made by AMD, AppliedMicro, Cavium, NXP and Xilinx.

Graf said there was very little difference between ARM and x86 as far as the flow was concerned. "ARM wants to differentiate itself in the right areas," he added.

The newly released service pack 2 for SLES would be the first target for the developers to work with. "We want to enable everything that was released in this service pack. The first generation will not conquer the market as we take bits and pieces and see their advantages and disadvantages. The second or third generation will realise the benefits," he said.

The writer is attending SUSECon as a guest of the company.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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