% fortune -ae paul murphy

So lets talk about bias and belief

I'm biased in favor of Unix and against Windows - everybody knows that except me; my perception is that I like things that work and Unix works better.

Potential client: "Look, you've got a rep and we're concerned you're just going to recommend Solaris on SPARC - the way you did at XXX two years ago.

Me: "Yep: and then they went with HP. now they're couple of million down with nothing actually working - so we will never know if I was right, but it's pretty obvious they were wrong.

But you know, so what? you have to think about what you're doing - not what someone else did. You're planning, what? you said about 400 x86 8 core machines to start with and enough float, in square footage, power, and air, to quadruple throughput over two years? So am I going to recommend Sun for that? it depends on what apps these things are supposed to run - but I'll tell you up front that with requirements in that range the job isn't going to be to show why you should bet on Sun's stuff, it'll be to find reasons not to - and all of those would have to be application based because their current T2 line would, for most business apps, give you your start-up throughput with maybe 60 to 80 machines -that's four racks, half empty - and with the "Victory Falls" stuff that's quietly being shipped already they'll have you down to two racks for the processors and maybe another two for storage.

If your apps let you go Sun, you probably won't even build a data center at all - just sound proof the hell out of a couple of rooms you can get networking, power, and cooling into, split your rack count two ways for redundancy, and call it done.

PC: "umm, hold on, you know I'm getting 3,200 Xeon cores to start with, right? Are you really saying some SPARC processor can match maybe 40 of those at a time? in a 2U slot? that's nonsense.

Me: " Sun can show you the numbers - or, better, lend you a test machine - and that's the point I want to make front and center: everybody talks about averages all the time, but what counts is much more specific: your apps, your people, your site - you have to try your stuff on Solaris/CMT to really know.

PC: "Well, IBM's guys here seem pretty sure we should go with Red Hat Linux; that's been the development environment

Me: "Ya, and they're not biased - look Linux is great - it's pretty much the standard now for supercomputing and small office services - but for bigger jobs the decision comes down to how well the core applications work -that's why you're building the data center, not because you want to run Linux, but because you need those apps to work for large numbers of users.

PC: "but Solaris? I know you like it, but I've been caught in the proprietary trap before - and it's just not on.

Me: "Red Hat is, read the license - Linux isn't, and Solaris isn't, but Red Hat is - it's a long story and look, we can talk around this all day, but the bottom line won't change: it comes down to what your main application needs and how well it works on the choices open to you. So lets talk about what counts: you key applications.

PC: "It's our home renovation application - custom, mostly DB2 with Websphere, java, eclipse - really interior visualization: they pick some room layouts, we tell them from where to take photos, upload them - give them their own homes or whatever on screen and let them work with new layouts, furniture, colors, and materials -anything: even pop in new windows or a fireplace with grandma and a rocking chair - so they see exactly how it will look, then we produce contract quotes for Sears and Home Depot that get them talking to the right guy at the local outlet with most of the sales order in their hot little hands.

Me: "Wow, that sounds cool - so that's most of it, what else is there?

As it turned out, pretty much the usual laundry list for a hot tech start-up - and no show stoppers for either Unix or Windows - so we got back to the question of bias.

Me: "but lets get back to this bias business - listen carefully to some of the other guys you're looking for advice from and I think you'll find they rarely offer anything like a factual evaluation of options they're not selling. Beer money says, for example, that those IBM guys pushing Linux never mention Sun's CMT/SMP line as an option, and that if you just come right out and ask them - and you should- they'll try to dismiss it with a sneer or a putdown of some kind.

Try it, - and if you don't get a good answer ask yourself: are they're too ignorant for you to listen too, or too dishonest?

I hear this crap all the time -they say I'm biased - but they're selling a product and a company and I'm not - so you need to ask the other question: if they're saying don't talk to Paul because he'll push you into Sun - how do they know that's that's wrong for you? My guess is they don't - what they know is that having you talk to Sun is wrong for them.

Really what guys like that are doing is using pejorative labelling to reduce your choices - the mass media do this all the time in politics. You're not supposed to notice but, for example, only about 3% of the mainstream media stories about Eliot Spitzer - you know, the hooker booker guy - mention that he's a Democrat - and then only in the fine print - but damn near every single one of the stories about Larry Craig - a guy I think was targetted and set up -stress that he's a Republican. Well, you know, to a lot of IBM and Red Hat people selling Linux, Sun's the enemy: so I get identified as a Sun guy by people who don't want you talking to me - but is the Solaris/CMT combination right for you? At this point how would I know? it's possible, I'd guess it's even likely - but what I think is that we're not going to know one way or the other until we see how your application scales up on it and we work out the cost numbers.

PC: "but what about Linux?

ME: "Linux is great -you know I work with it all the time - but when it comes to complex, mission critical, requirements at your scale it's crippled by x86; and sure, it runs on SPARC too, but not nearly as well as Solaris, so what's the point? You know when I come across as a Linux bigot? When the job is small enough for x86 to be cheap or when the customer needs consistent teraflops and therefore IBM's cell machine - the rest of the time? it's insanely great compared to Windows - you know the gap between Linux and other major Unix lines, Solaris and the BSDs, is much much smaller than that between Linux and Windows - but there is a gap - and why not go with the best?

As I said, I'm biased - everybody says so - but while I wait sleeplessly for PC to call back the good news is that I did get a call about a week later from the Finance guy at XXX: he's wondering when he'll know it's time to pull the plug and start over.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.