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Terra Soft's Yellow Dog Linux: Taking a Power Position

Terra Soft's Yellow Dog Linux: Taking a Power Position

Terra Soft has claimed a fairly unique platform in the Linux community: Power Architecture computers, among which is Sony's PlayStation 3. More than a game box, the PS3 with Yellow Dog Linux runs as a low-cost home and office personal computer and Cell Broadband Engine development workstation. Linux ran on the PS2, but it was definitely a geek-only option. For the PS3, the geek factor was removed.

By Jack M. Germain
03/20/07 4:00 AM PT

Yellow Dog Linux 5.0 by Terra Soft Solutions may not yet have the name recognition of Red Hat Linux, Novell Suse Linux or relative newcomer Ubuntu Linux by Canonical, but it is already well-established as an OS provider to some of the biggest names in the Power Architecture computing industry.

Terra Soft Solutions showcased its Yellow Dog Linux (YDL) v5.0 for the Sony Computer Entertainment's PlayStation 3 (PS3) at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last month. This conference is the trade show high point of the year, spotlighting the latest gaming technology Visit the VMware Tech Center by developers for the developers of computer, console, mobile, arcade and online games and location-based entertainment.

While Terra Soft was first to market with its version of the Linux OS for the PS3, its Yellow Dog Linux 5.0 operating system provides everything required for a home user computer or lightweight Mercury Cell workstation. It comes with more than 2,000 packages on a single DVD.

Got Enlightenment?

Yellow Dog Linux 5.0 is an open source operating system for home, office, server and cluster users built upon the Fedora Core. Terra Soft has developed and maintained YDL for the Power Architecture family of CPUs since introducing it in the spring of 1999. Some computer manufacturers regard YDL has the leading Linux for Power OS.

Perhaps what distinguishes Yellow Dog Linux from other Linux distributions is Terra Soft's replacement of the two standard desktop environments -- KDE (K Desktop Environment) and Gnome -- with its own desktop flavor, the Enlightenment e17 desktop.

"E17 was an industry first, an exciting transition away from the norms of KDE and Gnome to something fresh, aesthetically new, and simpler to use," Kai Staats, CEO of Terra Soft Solutions, told LinuxInsider. "Only YDL ships with E17 by default, with KDE and Gnome available on the Install DVD."

YDL Embedded

Yellow Dog Linux is founded on IBM hardware on several levels. The Yellow Dog OS is used on the IBM BladeCenter JS21 and the Cell QS20. Terra Soft's YDL also supports the IBM eServer line of Power Architecture. These include the IBM Series p5, Series X, Series z9 and Series i5.

For the last four years, Terra Soft has been a top-tier Apple authorized OEM (original equipment manufacturer) value-added reseller by offering PowerPC Macs with Yellow Dog Linux preinstalled. Terra Soft also provides Intel-based workstations with with the Apple OS X.

Terra Soft is partnered with Mercury Computer to provide the computer maker with an advanced Linux board support package for the Cell Processor. The Cell Processor is a multicore CPU (central processing unit) often used in game consoles and PowerPC Architecture designed by both Mercury and IBM.

Sony's PS3 has Yellow Dog Linux inside. More than a game box, the PS3 with Yellow Dog Linux runs as a low-cost home and office personal computer and Cell Broadband Engine development workstation.

PlayStation 3 Inside

Linux ran on the PS2, but it was definitely a geek-only option, explained Staats. Sony and Terra Soft, however, removed that "geekiness" in the PlayStation 3's design.

"That was not the sort of thing you'd want your mother to try. I believe the demand for Linux on the PS2 gave a sense of what could unfold should they move to embrace Linux from the get-go," said Staats.

When Sony designed the PS3, it did so with the full intent to have it provide incredible game play as well as provide full personal computer functionality through a complete Linux OS, he stated.

"In other words, this is a not a kit nor a hack. It is well-executed," Staats said.

Sony showed a very proactive approach in its new design for the PlayStation 3, and this is showcased by the tools Staats' company built into the GameOS for partitioning the internal drive, installing Linux and booting to Linux once installed in a traditional dual-boot function, Staats said.

Once installed, the complete Yellow Dog Linux OS provides all the applications by default. The installed list is shown here.

The included installation DVD contains an additional 2,000 available Linux packages.

MIT's Real-World Research

Massachusetts Institute of Technology's students and faculty are using Yellow Dog Linux on the PS3 to conduct experiments on ray tracing activities. While that may not seem significant for college students, the non-research platform certainly makes it noteworthy.

MIT students in three weeks built a real-time ray tracing demonstration using the PS3 running YDL. The configuration allowed the student researchers to manipulate 3D objects which move through an environment lit by multiple light sources. As the objects move freely or are directed manually through this space, the light origins, surface features, reflections and resulting images are rendered in real time rather than as a movie, Staats explained.

"While real time rendering is not new, it is very unusual that it would function so well on such an inexpensive computer at such high quality," said Staats.

While the project was conducted in three weeks, the students actively engaged in programming the demonstration for little more than a week. This counters the assumption others make that programming for the Cell is too hard, he noted.

"Installing YDL was pretty easy, and it was quite robust. It also worked with the latest Cell SDK without any problems," Dr. Rodric M. Rabbah of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory told LinuxInsider.

The Terra Soft support staff was very helpful when the students got stuck on some finer level details that were beyond their expertise, he added.

The ray tracing demonstration on the PS3 was presented at the Game Developers Conference. However, other MIT students conducted additional research using the PS3 and YDL.

"There were five other projects with equal success, although less flashy in terms of their demonstration," said Rabbah.

YDL's Fine Points

Yellow Dog Linux 5.0 differs from other Linux distributions in several key ways besides its desktop innovations. One key factor is the level of hardware support, noted Staats.

"The quality of a Linux OS improves from its community foundation to a commercial product in that famous final 10 percent of the effort," he said.

The non-geek customer experience is usually improved by commercially funded entities who address certain support areas. For example, Linux developers do not always ensure that audio works on all supported models. Also, they sometimes fail to test a multitude of monitors, USB memory sticks, drives and cameras. Developers must also ensure that the installer is highly user friendly.

"The later has historically been the leading feature of YDL in contrast to other Power Architecture distributions. Anyone can install it," Staats said. "Keep in mind that our No. 1 selling point is our 100 percent focus on Power and Power alone. This is what brought us to Cell and gave us an opportunity to lead the Cell Linux charge."


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