Oh where, oh where is that OS?

Underestimated and overlooked – such is the burden of the operating system in today’s enterprise.

Everyone will tell you business processes can’t run without one, but it’s not the first item on anyone’s shopping list. Applications, or even middleware, can often take importance over the OS, but like any lowest level on totem pole, the entire structure would tumble if you removed it.

Zeus Kerravala, research director for networks and broadband access for Boston-based Yankee Group, stated it simply: “The operating system doesn’t matter. It matters only in that the applications running need to be supported on that operating system.”

He added he has always felt it was best to let the application drive the OS. “The role of the server operating system has not really changed. It houses the application.”

According to IDC’s Dan Kusnetzky, most companies do not focus on the operating system as the central point of their IT decisions.

“Their decision making process is usually guided by several things,” the Framingham, Mass.-based vice-president of systems software research said. “Is the data maintained in the system somehow going to be converted into a product?… Those companies cannot buy packaged application software to do what they want, so they have to build something. So, their first set of decisions are what database should it go on and what application development tools should be used. So, they tell the vendors, ‘I need these applications available in a package, tell me whose package I should consider.’ At that point they can invite everyone back and say, “Which operating system should we go with?'”

The other scenario, he said, is where the data is ancillary to the creation of the product. Computing is a cost of business for those companies. “Their idea is to drive the cost as close to zero as they can. So they choose packaged applications that lower the cost of development and support and then the platform and software are decided.”

Kerravala said people look at computing differently, but generally speaking, the operating system is part of the third round choice, and is not significant until that choice is made.

“I like to joke that I conduct research on the area of software people not only don’t care about, but wish they didn’t have to buy,” he laughed. “Yes. It runs the business processes, but other than that it’s a complexity the business decision maker doesn’t want to think about,” he said.

“They just want the work done as cheaply and effectively as possible. So, if the operating system shows it can make or save money, they will be interested. But they won’t be interested in it for its own sake.”

Stacey Quandt agreed that the application choice really dictates which operating system a company runs.

“Usually in an IT decision you need to think about applications and after that ask which platform you want to run it on,” the Giga Information Group analyst said. “If you look at business intelligence or supply chain management you might want to run that on Unix before looking at Windows because you need to look at scalability.”

Kevin Restivo, an analyst with IDC Canada in Toronto, said that the operating system has to be in line with a company’s business goals.

“If your applications are not geared to run on an operating system, chances are you will move to an operating system that will allow your applications to continue running,” he said.

However, William Hurley, program manager for the Yankee Group, said the applications should not drive how someone is making their operating system choices.

“Where you want to go with IT infrastructure and how you look at the operating system as a significant component of that should drive how you think about application opportunities in the enterprise,” Hurley said.

The OS wearing a new hat

Hurley noted the role of the OS is changing, but said it was in a way that will allow it to maintain its importance.

“The relationships between the operating system and the network are more symbiotic than they were before. Having the opportunity to move in an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, fashion is important,” he said.

He added that business can drive intelligence into the network, but those values in access control and application distribution are an extension of operating systems.

Restivo maintained that while the dynamics of the operating system are changing, it is still crucial to the enterprise.

“In terms of the operating system and its role in the enterprise, gradually we’ll see free operating systems gain respect – that’s always going to edge its way into the enterprise,” Restivo said.

He also predicted a battle brewing in the high-end server market, with Microsoft making a lot of noise about its intention to play in the 64-bit processor space.

Kerravala had predictions of the role of the OS being drastically reduced by a move back to thin client applications and Web-based software.

“The world is going IP,” he said. “If a company can house applications in a browser, then the operating system becomes less important.”

However Joyce Becknell, director of computer platforms and architectures for Boston-based Aberdeen Group, said the operating systems are becoming more important .

“The features we’re driving to are increasingly becoming functions of software and hardware together, rather than just hardware. If you have redundant components, that’s hardware, but if you want a cluster or a partition, then that’s software – that’s the operating system,” she said, adding that vendors are putting more features on the operating systems.

“You could argue that in certain parts of the industry (operating systems) are becoming less important, that would sort of be in an application server – in that people just want the server to work, they don’t really care what the operating system is – and in that sense they would seem less important, but I would argue it becomes more important that they work right off the bat,” Becknell said.

She noted that “operating environment” may be the new name for the operating system with companies looking to add different software pieces to the operating system.

“IT managers are very knowledgeable about the back end and the end applications…where they start to have some headaches is the middleware, the transaction layer. That’s where there are five million companies with four billion products,” she said.

“God help the IT manager, trying to find out if all the systems support this. So Sun, HP, IBM, Compaq are all working with partners to try to put a lot of that together. Microsoft’s .Net plays into that. How do we take different pieces and package them so IT managers can buy them and install and it works?” Becknell said.

She added that the operating system is an important piece of all the parts.

“If you ask an end user what they use, they’re not going to say, ‘Oh, I love SPARC systems or tower chips,’ they say, ‘I use AIX, I use Solaris, I use Microsoft.’ For those people the operating system is of great value,” she said.

Becknell also stressed that “If the operating system doesn’t work, nothing else will.”

Systems, Systems Everywhere

One operating system isn’t enough for most companies today. Kusnetzky quoted a recent study that found most companies were averaging at six.

Quandt noted that the battle for the enterprise platform has changed since open source operating systems have come in to the fight.

“The issues of standards and a competent commodity platform changed with the evolution of Linux in the enterprise,” she said. “The initial output cost can be little or nil, depending on how you acquire the system.”

Restivo stated that although companies may now be experimenting with alternative operating systems, they are still at an early adopter phase.

Quandt did say that companies running multiple systems seem to be looking to consolidate them now.

However Kerravala there is little reason for companies to upgrade.

“When their business applications are supported under a new operating system, then there is a reason. If there is no application reason to change, then there is no business reason, and if there is not business reason, then there is no reason to spend the money or the time.”

Kusnetzky noted many organizations will still be running old operating systems, simply because they are still doing the job. He said that every year people still order Windows 3.1 to add on to new users, because it best supports their applications.