HP shifts its Unix strategy

With billions spent on hardware, software, and services each year, the enterprise Unix market can support more than one major player. Sun Microsystems Inc. is top dog with a commanding lead in unit sales, revenue and mind share. Hewlett-Packard Co.’s expertise in health care and scientific communities keep the company in the top three, but that advantage isn’t ironclad, especially up against Sun’s ruthless sales force.

To overcome the inertia of its flagship OS, HP has opted to open up HP-UX to allow the best of both worlds: Linux’s populist appeal and HP’s bullet-proof, if staid, image to create HP-UX 11i, Hewlett-Packard’s most ambitious operating system to date.

On the hardware front, HP joined forces with Intel Corp. to create the Itanium, a 64-bit processor that the companies hope will shape the future of open systems.

To help with the integration of Linux, HP is also now delivering release 1.0 of its Linux Porting Kit (LPK) as a free download. It is an impressive first effort, featuring a full set of GNU C/C++ development tools, Linux API libraries, and a software transition kit. The LPK delivers only source-level Linux compatibility, a fact that is sure to draw fire from competitors.

The Linux API library, adapted from GNU’s C standard library, fills in about 200 functions that are missing in HP-UX or that Linux implements differently. The transition kit helps developers identify these incompatibilities and resolve them. HP’s goal is to get Linux coders accustomed to using HP-UX’s native libraries. Although the LPK creates a bridge to bring Linux developers and open-source applications to HP-UX, the open-source tools are not up to the task of developing commercial projects on HP-UX.

By supporting standard network protocols and implementing Linux application portability, HP exceeds the interoperability requirements applied to most Unix servers. HP takes this a step further with CIFS/9000, a standard feature that lets an HP-UX server provide file and print services to Windows clients. The same software also sets up HP-UX as a Windows networking client. HP-UX users can even authenticate against Windows domain controllers. This blurs the line between platforms and makes resource sharing more transparent.

Hewlett-Packard engineers worked with Intel on the design of the new Itanium (formerly IA-64) 64-bit CPU. IBM has ambitious plans for Itanium as well, but HP secured an inside track by building PA-RISC compatibility into the Itanium chip. There is widespread speculation about further Itanium delays, fuelled by Intel’s reluctance to supply a specific delivery time line. Even if Itanium ships tomorrow, HP’s enterprise users will likely find better performance and stability in PA-RISC for the next couple of years. Companies should set up trials of Itanium server hardware and wait until the platform proves itself.

Hewlett-Packard doesn’t attract as much attention as Sun and IBM, which may make some companies that haven’t standardized on HP Unix servers wonder where HP fits in the overall scheme. HP is a respected hardware manufacturer, and HP-UX 11i only strengthens the company’s already solid enterprise credentials. When HP’s Unix lands on Itanium, it will herald the creation of a new category of open system: a stable, standards-based Unix running on a commodity platform.

Yager is the east coast technical director for the InfoWorld Test Center. Contact him at tom_yager@infoworld.com.

Review box: HP-UX 11i

Supplier: Hewlett-Packard Co.

Platform: Unix servers

Pros: Lower overall cost; rapid availability after Intel Itanium debuts; reliable, affordable PA-RISC platform; inclusion of open source and Java

Cons: PA-RISC lags Sun in performance; hard to distinguish standard from optional features in literature