DETROIT -- For years, the big automakers bought pricey supercomputers to design new cars, run crash simulations and crunch through structural analysis tasks.
Now, a growing number of car makers are spending much less on high-horsepower computing, turning to the open-source Linux operating system.
As they do, they're dumping customized supercomputers running proprietary Unix operating software by Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Silicon Graphics Inc. and others.
Ford Motor Co., Volvo, Ferrari UK and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group have found that clusters of cheap computers running Linux can easily handle the workload - at substantial savings.
"This is a game-changer for any industry that has a high-performance computing workload," said Steve Solazzo, IBM's general manager for Linux operations.
Ironically, companies such as IBM, Sun and HP that are leading the Linux charge are the same ones losing business as companies shy away from large supercomputers.
Linux clusters make sense for automakers because one of the first applications that Linux supported when it was introduced a decade ago was high-tech engineering, said Dan Kusnetzky of the technology research firm IDC.
Car makers are following a parallel cost-cutting trend across other computing-intensive sectors.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory now uses Linux.
Major corporations, including 7-Eleven, Deutsche Telekom and Amazon.com, are migrating to Linux to take advantage of low-cost, Linux-fueled versions of data management software such as MySQL. And government agencies from France to China are flocking to the software.
The cluster concept, also known as parallel computing, involves dividing a task among many smaller computers - instead of one large one - to get the job done faster and more efficiently, Kusnetzky said.
For Chrysler and Volvo, IBM has created clusters of commercial-grade Linux computers to analyze complex problems.
Chrysler said the new arrangement, which it began using in August, allows it to analyze crash simulations 20 percent faster at 40 percent of previous costs.
Chrysler spokeswoman Mary Beth Halprin said the automaker eventually hopes to use Linux cluster technology in simulations for aerodynamics, hoping to determine sources of noise and vibration.
"As the technology evolves and can handle greater amounts of data, we'll look to moving other portions of our testing," Halprin said.
Volvo also is using an IBM Linux cluster in developing new car models.
Sun, which is best known for workstations and servers built on its proprietary Sparc processor and Unix-based Solaris operating system, has sold Linux clusters to Ford, where Linux has been used to design transmissions for the past year, said Peter Ffoulkes, Sun's strategy group manager.
And it's not just the automakers, but many of their suppliers who see value in Linux.
Tennessee-based Wise Industries, which makes interior components such as carpeting and liners for vans and trucks, switched from Unix to reduce costs and improve speed in accounting and distribution, said company president Ron Wise.
Not all automakers have switched to Linux. General Motors Corp., for instance, continues to use proprietary supercomputers.
IBM says it has persuaded 4,600 customers since January 2000 to use Linux for everything from oil field calculations to moviemaking. Solazzo said IBM expects overall Linux sales for 2002 to see "very healthy double-digit growth" over last year.
The research firm IDC estimates the Linux cluster market at about $225 million this year, compared with $240 million for Unix and $30 million for Windows.
Microsoft, the world's largest software maker, also is trying to win business away from makers of Unix-based machines - and steer customers away from Linux.
Microsoft executives consider open-source software such as Linux the biggest threat to their business model.
Sean McAlinden, an analyst at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, thinks it's too soon to calculate the overall cost savings of using lower-cost Linux systems in the automotive industry.
However, he said Detroit's Big Three automakers alone have thousands of engineers performing technical tasks each day on computers that could be changed to Linux.
"I don't know how significant it is, but why pay license fees if you don't have to?" McAlinden said.
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