Linux applications make the leap to Unix

Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp. both pledged late last month to support Linux applications on additional variants of Unix, so that Linux binaries could become an almost universal format for deploying applications. That will give users more applications to choose from – while sticking with their trusted, data-centre-ready Unix environments.

However, it could also spell danger for the very vendors that are offering the support, facilitating a wholesale migration away from their proprietary Unix versions toward Linux, observers said.

HP pledged support for Linux binaries in the IA-64 version of HP-UX and IBM in Dynix/ptx. Earlier this month, IBM promised Linux support in the upcoming AIX 5L as well. Most Linux applications can also now be recompiled relatively easily to run on other processor architectures – including IBM’s S/390 mainframes.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” said Mike Prince, vice-president and CIO at Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp. in Burlington, N.J.

Prince is an early Linux supporter but uses IBM Intel-based NUMA-Q servers (acquired with last year’s purchase of Sequent Computer Systems Inc.) running the Dynix/ptx Unix variant in his data centre. “Dynix/ptx was always known as a killer high-end operating system – it will run enormous user loads – but the downside [is] there have been relatively few applications written for it. That problem is now eliminated,” said Prince.

E-commerce- and Internet-related applications will increasingly be developed for Linux first, analysts agreed. Analyst George Weiss at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said support for Linux binaries on proprietary Unix environments provides customers with a good way to start experimenting with Linux applications.

“HP-UX is a hardened kernel; it’s proven. If I were going to test the waters with Linux, maybe that’s the way I’d do it,” said Weiss.

New Direction for Linux

Seeing Linux applications on servers that aren’t running the Linux kernel is a surprise to that kernel’s chief developer, Linus Torvalds. “It used to be the other way around,” said Torvalds, speaking recently on the LinuxWorld show floor in San Jose, Calif. “A few years ago, we had to find a way to run [The Santa Cruz Operation Inc.] applications on Linux.”

“Linux is really becoming this universal set of [application programming interfaces] and [Application Binary Interfaces] in the Intel space that people can develop against,” said Prince. “When you are talking about large back-end applications, Solaris, HP-UX or Dynix/ptx really add some value. But on the other hand, Linux is becoming the first port environment for almost everybody in the Unix space.”

“It’s a very healthy direction for the industry to be going in,” said Mark Ryan, chief technology officer at, the Atlanta-based on-line service of The Weather Channel Enterprises Inc.

A lot of the on-line weather service runs on Intel-based Linux servers from IBM, though many of the back-end applications are hosted on Unix servers from Sun Microsystems Inc. Integrating native support for Linux application on high-end Unix platforms will give users far more scalability, Ryan said. And people with Linux skills are easier to find than those with Unix skills today, he added.

Running Linux on Unix boxes “is appealing because it allows us to find the best processing platform,” said Mike Anderson, vice-president of information systems at The Home Depot Inc. in Atlanta. “We can focus more on getting the best [return on investment] from a hardware standpoint from many vendors.”

But, Weiss said, Unix vendors are walking a thin line. “They must make sure not to send the message to customers that they should prepare to move off proprietary Unix,” he said.

Stacey Quandt, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., said Unix vendors are hedging their bets in case Linux beats their proprietary operating systems in the marketplace. And for users, “it’s a stopgap until Linux has the high-end features customers need,” Quandt said.

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