What goes up must come down

In the world of information technology, blink and you’ve likely missed an upgrade, a software launch and sometimes even the entry – and exit – of a particularly bad innovation.

While this remains true for much of today’s technical developments, when it comes to the operating system, the old platforms still live and breathe.

The proof is in the Unix pudding. While a dinosaur by today’s standards, Unix is not ready for extinction yet. Industry experts and vendors agree that despite its costly and un-user-friendly demeanor, Unix has a long life ahead of itself, even if current market forecasts suggest otherwise.

Starting from scratch

The commercial Unix operating system has come a long way since its inception in the late 1970s. Although it began its life as a pet project deep in the bowels of what then was Bell Labs, it was soon anticipated that Unix could actually be the tie that bound the disparate vendors of the era together.

But this was not to be. Rather than simplifying the processes of IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., Novell Inc. and Sun Microsystems Inc., to name but a few, each vendor took the OS and gave it its own flair, creating the various versions of Unix seen today.

“Unix started out as an effort to create some sort of unification through all these mainframe, mini-NetWare proprietary systems,” says Warren Shiau, research manager, software research with IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto. “What is ironic is that all the vendors went off and created their own proprietary versions of it.”

Despite the variants of Unix, by the mid-1980s, the commercial OS began making headway into the coveted enterprise market. According to Bill Claybrook, analyst at Harvard Research Group Inc. in Harvard, Mass., the early attempts to use Unix in the enterprise were focused on online transaction processing (OLTP) systems.

“Still, as far in as 1987, Unix was not big in the enterprise at all,” Claybrook said. “Oracle (Corp.) and Sybase (Inc.) were just moving their database systems over to Unix at that time. The [database] was really Unix’s first inroad to the enterprise.”

It wasn’t long before widespread adoption of the OS rapidly grew. By the early 1990s, Unix was a permanent fixture not only in the back end and database management system arenas, but was also becoming a hot commodity in high performance computing, Claybrook said.

“Unix became really rampant throughout the enterprise,” he noted. “By 2000, almost 50 per cent of server revenue worldwide was Unix.”

But, despite its dominance throughout the 1990s and into 2000, Unix has begun to face some tough challenges, namely some stiff competition from the likes of Microsoft Corp.’s Windows OS and the growing popularity of Linux.

Microsoft has proved to be the thorn in Unix’s side. The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant, best known for its contribution to desktop computing in the early 1990s, began to view back end dominance as not only a feasible goal, but one that it was determined to meet.

“The vendors who were offering Unix saw that Microsoft was going to become a very serious threat, not just on the desktop but in the server/OS,” IDC’s Shiau said. “There was the perception in the industry that Unix could be the weapon to stop Microsoft.”

The vendors pushing Unix — IBM, Sun, HP and Compaq — determined that their individual install bases were strong to go it on their own. By having proprietary versions of Unix, each vendor could keep customers locked into their own stacks.

“The (Unix vendors) had interfaces open to promote enough connectivity so that users could go out on their own and make the connections between the IBM version of Unix and the HP version of Unix, for example,” Shiau said. What Microsoft offered was something all together different. Companies running a Microsoft OS were not faced with the issues of building connectivity or integration.

“It wasn’t a really technically elegant way of doing it because Microsoft wasn’t technically elegant then,” Shiau continued. “But for the user, when they were presented with a choice between having the responsibility for building out integration and connectivity or having it already done for them…it is possible that the user buys into that argument even if it was less technically elegant.”

It became increasingly apparent that Unix would not be the one OS to rule them all, least of all Microsoft. And, as if two OSes weren’t enough to make vendors and customers alike scramble, the more recent development of Linux is an added blow to Unix’s viability.

Three’s a crowd

In the world of IT, nothing lasts forever. Just when Microsoft looked as though it would overtake the Unix market sweeping the globe with all-Microsoft shops, a newer, simpler and moreover cheaper alternative began to make industry headlines.

Enter Linux — the open source OS that has taken the enterprise back end by storm, and has won the praise of former pro-Unix vendors and customers.

“One reason Linux is so popular among vendors that it doesn’t cost them any money to develop it,” Harvard Research’s Claybrook said.

For a company like Novell Inc., Linux is more than just a trendy platform. The company is literally betting the bank on the OS, having recently acquired Linux developer SuSe AG.

According to Ross Chevalier, CTO for Novell Canada in Markham, Ont., despite Canada’s reputation for conservatism when it comes to embracing new technology, Linux appears to be an exception to the Canuck rule.

“I have been extremely enthused to see how much the development community in Canada has embraced Linux,” Chevalier said. “We have seen enormous interest from governments asking very good strategic questions about how they can leverage Linux and open source software.”

As proof, when the City of Calgary was faced with a management shuffle and new budget constraints in mid-2002, its IT department took a long, hard look at its infrastructure and made some shocking discoveries. What it found was that the 140 Unix servers it was running were costing six to seven times more to maintain than the 220 Windows 2003 servers it also operated.

Dan Ryan, manager of infrastructure and desktop management for the City of Calgary started asking some serious questions, namely, why was Unix so expensive? Ranging between $75,000 and $175,000 per server, was there a alternative that could offer at-par performance for a fraction of the cost? Ryan found his solution in Linux.

“Our research was telling us that Unix sales were down significantly, while Linux sales were going through the roof quarter over quarter,” Ryan says. “We also noticed that major partners like Oracle, IBM and HP had all stepped up to the plate behind Linux.” The City of Calgary decided to entertain a Linux pilot with HP running its ProLiant DL380 and DL580 servers. The financials were the City’s key priority — keeping costs down — while performance requirements took a back seat.

Ryan and his staff were more than pleasantly surprised to find that, not only would they save significant amounts of money in maintenance and server costs, but in some cases, found performance of the Linux OS better than on Unix.

“We expected (Linux) to be about break-even on performance,” Ryan says. “But, then we started looking at some batch applications and pretty amazing results started to come in. Applications that might typically take 35 to 40 minutes were running at about 12 to 15 minutes.”

Ryan says Unix is officially in containment and the City’s migration to Linux from Unix will be complete by Q1 2005. In doing so, the City of Calgary will have consolidated 140 Unix servers down to under 100 Linux servers.

But, the question remains: If the City of Calgary had a significant investment in both Unix and Windows, why migrate to Linux?

“Windows has generally been targeted for the file/print services, e-mail and smaller applications,” Ryan explains. “Our mission-critical applications and our Oracle databases have always run on Unix. The reason we opted to migrate to Linux versus Windows was that the learning curve was so little, the migration effort is very manageable, the risk is almost nil and the financial benefits are clearly there. We are talking, on average, 75 per cent lower capital costs.”

Harvard Research’s Claybrook backs up Ryan’s claim: Migrating from Unix to Linux is a far simpler task than migrating from Unix to Windows.

“Going from Unix to Linux is really pretty trivial because you don’t have to retrain — Linux is essentially Unix anyway,” he said. “Microsoft does have some big things going for it but the question is how they are going to counteract the Linux hype and the perceived surge of Linux in the enterprise. Dell (Computer Corp.) doesn’t care…IBM would much rather sell Linux. Sun would rather sell Linux if it has to…HP is the only company that I can see that has a huge Windows business and wants to pursue that business. (But) they are selling Unix and Linux too.”

According to Steve Shaw, business development manager, Enterprise Storage and Servers Group with HP Canada in Mississauga, Ont., the company’s perceived OS fence-sitting is part of its strategy to keep up with its partners as well as keeping customers happy.

“Unix has been around and has evolved over the last 20-odd years and in that time…Windows and Linux (arrived), both of which have come a long way as well,” Shaw said. “We certainly, as a company, have the strategy to maintain our Unix offering (HP-UX) as our long-term enterprise operating environment.”

Shaw does not anticipate the disappearance of Unix in the enterprise. He said that with the huge investment in the global marketplace in Unix and the capabilities the platform offers, it will be some time still before Linux ever takes over as the dominant OS.

“If you believe in the adage that you can judge the future by looking at the past, mainframes are still here,” he said. “There are thousands and thousands of Unix installations around the world and you don’t just flip them overnight. But Linux is definitely going to be a powerhouse to be contended with. As an example right now, Oracle is very focused on Linux and if we don’t, as an infrastructure provider, offer the infrastructure to support that Oracle solution, for example, they are going to go to another vendor that will. It is a business necessity to support (multiple) OSes.”

Still a contender

Whether you are a firm believer in the power of Windows or the simplicity of Linux, the general consensus amongst industry experts is that bidding farewell to Unix is not an immediate option.

“It is going to be a long time before Unix disappears, if at all,” said IDC’s Shiau. “The primary reason for that right now…is that Unix is still a big source of profit for the (vendors).”

Harvard Research’s Claybrook expects Unix platforms to go the way of the IBM mainframe – to be found only in select environments in the future.

“There are a lot of large Unix systems and clusters that will be around forever,” he said. “Twenty years from now, you will probably see Unix around…but its market share will drop off.”

Claybrook predicts that within three years, Linux will be far enough into the enterprise that as Unix starts “falling down the tubes, you will see Microsoft and Linux competing for the old Unix market.”

Still, Novell’s Chevalier warns that there are still a number of things that Linux “just can’t do yet.” For example, Linux cannot support a 32-way Intel-based cluster, but Chevalier assures that the platform will scale in the not so distant future.

Until then, he adds, the key for customers is to maintain the viability of their IT investments.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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