Volume 4, Number 29 -- August 7, 2007

NEC Brings Linux, Windows Clustering Software to North America

Published: August 7, 2007

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

While NEC is not exactly a name-brand supplier of servers and systems software in the North American IT market, the company is a dominant supplier of servers and systems software in its home Japanese market and in other countries in the Asia/Pacific region. Having invested in creating its own clustering software for Windows servers more than a decade ago and moved support over to Linux in recent years, NEC wants to sell that software to customers on this side of the Pacific Ocean.

NEC has been ramping up its Express5800 server business in recent years, and today sells its X64-based and Itanium-based servers in North America through NEC Corporation America's IT Platforms Group. The company also has a partnership with Stratus Technology to co-develop a line of Xeon-based fault tolerant servers, which support Windows and Linux, and has another co-development agreement with server maker Unisys for a converged line of Linux and Windows machines that use Itanium and X64 processors. But hardware is only part of the data center solution that NEC can bring to bear, and that is why the company is peddling its ExpressCluster X LAN Edition high availability clustering software for Windows and Linux boxes in North America now.

According to George Wu, director of the software business for the IT Platforms Group at NEC America, the ExpressCluster software for clustering Windows servers was first sold in 1996, and actually predates Microsoft's own "Wolfpack" Cluster Services. Wu says that, in fact, the company's various ExpressCluster editions are the market leaders for clustering of Windows and Linux servers in Japan. All told, the software has about 4,000 customers that are clustering over 10,000 systems. Most of those customers are in Japan, but NEC has a few hundred customers who have brought it over to North America even though NEC wasn't selling it here yet.

NEC actually sells three different products for clustering. ExpressCluster X SAN is a shared-disk clustering setup that can have up to 32 server nodes in a cluster; all nodes have to be located in the same data center, and it costs $5,000 per node. Then there is ExpressCluster X LAN, which provides clustering for two physical servers in either active-active or active-passive failover mode. The LAN edition of ExpressCluster does not require external, shared disk storage, and it basically implements disk mirroring on two servers across a normal LAN connection. This software, which costs $3,750 per node, is aimed at remote offices or departments of large organizations or small and medium businesses that want high availability clustering for their applications. ExpressCluster X LAN costs $3,750 per server node. Customers who want to take their LAN clusters and separate them geographically to improve for disaster recovery can pay $8,000 to run ExpressCluster X LAN over a wide area network.

Wu says that NEC is fired up about selling ExpressCluster X LAN in the United States and Canada because SMB shops running Linux and Windows want to be able to keep their systems running in the event of unplanned downtime, and given the complexity of systems even at small companies and the need to keep applications running 24x7, they want to use clusters to allow them to stage software upgrades on their machines without having to take applications down. Because the software has been written to preserve the sequence of writes to files on systems and does not commit a write on one machine until it has been verified on the second machine, the ExpressCluster X LAN software can be used not just to backup unstructured files, but also transactional databases.

The software is also aware of VMware's ESX Server hypervisor and Microsoft's Virtual Server 2005 hypervisor, which means it can be used to cluster and failover virtual machines as well as physical ones. Just last week, NEC inked a partnership deal with XenSource, the creator of the open source Xen hypervisor for Linux and Windows on X64 iron, and now NEC will be reselling the XenEnterprise hypervisor and management tools as well as integrating support for Xen into the ExpressCluster software.

In conjunction with the launch of the ExpressCluster X LAN software in North America, the software has received some tweaks. Up until now, using ExpressCluster meant needing to install a rich client on either a Windows or Linux workstation. These clients were different, but were recently merged to provide Windows and Linux admins the exact same tool. However, not all admins need to make changes; most of the time, they are just monitoring systems. So NEC has created a Java-based Web interface for the core monitoring and management features of ExpressCluster.

Other tweaks include the ability to stop and start virtual servers, which are usually organized in groups, individually; up until now, whole groups of virtual servers had to be stopped and started at the same time. NEC is also allowing operating system images and data files to be stored on the same disks, which was not possible before with ExpressCluster X LAN. Customers had to have dedicated disks inside their two physical servers that just housed the operating system. The software knows how to better cope with existing data sets in disk arrays on the servers, too; before, ExpressCluster was very picky about where it plunked itself down on the arrays, sometimes forcing customers to move their data off the machines, install ExpressCluster, and then reinstall their data. And finally, ExpressCluster no long uses the embedded Windows Cluster Services to support the clustering of Microsoft's Exchange Server email server, but rather has its own technique of clustering. What this means is that ExpressCluster can mirror not just Exchange Server Enterprise Edition, which has the embedded Cluster Services, but also Exchange Server Standard Edition, which does not. Even Microsoft cannot do this--unless it offers customers ExpressCluster or another third-party clustering tool.

The ExpressCluster software from NEC supports servers running Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 and 4 and Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10. RHEL 5 and SLES 10 SP1 support are slated for later this year, according to Wu. Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 in the Standard, Enterprise, and Datacenter Editions are also supported. NEC supports only its own Itanium-based servers running either Windows or Linux with the ExpressCluster software, but will support anyone else's X64-based servers.


NEC, Stratus Flesh Out Fault Tolerant Server Lines

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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik, Kevin Vandever,
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