Unix: Far from legacy, but far more challenged

With Windows and Linux becoming increasingly attractive options in the data centre, IT managers have good reason to reassess their Unix strategies

In May, United Parcel Service moved a sendmail messaging application from a Unix/RISC-based system to Linux on Intel. The result was superior performance at a lower cost. Much lower, said Nick Gray, the company's director of architectural services.

"The cost was about one-third of the original environment," said Gray. Most of the savings came from replacing Sun Microsystems hardware with Intel-based servers.

Today, Atlanta-based UPS is developing a roadmap "to see how much of our Unix environment can be supported by Linux," said Gray.

That roadmap, and those being drawn up by other large corporations, may indicate that some hazards lie ahead for Unix.

"I think the Unix suppliers are definitely threatened by Linux-on-Intel platforms," said Robert Annas, head of systems management for the data centre of Lexis-Nexis, a Reed Elsevier subsidiary. "I think you are in the three-to-five-year range before [Linux] really takes over."

John Gilligan, CIO for the US Air Force, can see Unix influence decreasing as users seek to leverage improvements in Linux and the economies of scale offered by Intel-based systems.

"I would envision, absent some other factors, somewhat of a decrease in Unix," Gilligan said. "Going away" is a little strong, because we've got a lot invested." A lot invested, indeed. Unix is the powerhouse of the corporate enterprise, and companies will spend billions of dollars on Unix systems in the years ahead. But combined, Windows and Linux server spending will surpass Unix by 2007, according to IDC.

Under attack

Interviews with two dozen users yielded a consensus that Unix is under attack and that its rivals - predominantly Windows and Linux - are poised to take a larger share of the data centre. But the users generally agreed that Unix systems will remain - for years to come - the core of their high-end operations.

Clinton Hope, a senior systems administrator at Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp in California, said he has no plans to move off Unix. "We have to look at [Linux] because it is an emerging technology, but we're still not considering it," said Hope, whose IT shop runs on Sun systems. "We don't see it as powerful as Unix systems."

Businesses and governments last year spent more on Unix server operating systems than they did on Windows and Linux server operating systems combined - $US20.8 billion on Unix servers worldwide vs $US2.8 billion on Linux and $US13.8 billion on Windows, according to IDC.

Unix spending will grow less than 3 per cent through 2007 to reach $21.3 billion, IDC predicts. Meanwhile, Linux server spending will grow by more than 200 per cent to reach $8.8 billion, with Windows server spending rising 40 per cent to $19.8 billion over the same period.

"I think there is a perception that Unix is going to go poof," said Jean Bozman, an analyst at IDC. But that's not going to happen, she said. "Unix is a tremendous presence, and it is still the single largest slice of the market."

Still, there's no question that many companies are beginning to reassess their Unix strategies. Empresas Polar, a food distributor in Caracas, Venezuela, is one of them.

Empresas Polar supports 5500 users with an ERP system from SAP, running on Hewlett-Packard's Unix system, HP-UX. But Elkinomar Romer, manager of corporate IT, said the company has begun considering a plan to migrate the system to Linux.

The Unix environment works just fine - no complaints, Romer said. But the company wants to ensure that its SAP system is running on the best platform in the years ahead. "We feel we are running the right platform now," he said. "But what could happen in the future?"

Many users see a key benefit to this competition. Vendors "are going to feel pressure from Linux - pressure to maintain Unix, to expand it, to continue to develop it and improve it," said Paul Edmunds, a programmer and systems analyst at Duke Energy Corp.

For now, some users and analysts see the growth of Windows and especially of Linux occurring primarily on low- and mid-range systems.

Linux will be "the potential winner in the Web world, in the content management ... world - where the application and Internet meet," said Deb Mukhergee, chief technical officer at Zurich Financial Services in Switzerland. And the mid-range will be "an absolute gold mine for the Linux world", she said. If users are at all anxious about Unix's future, it's in part because they aren't sure what the major systems vendors will do.

If IBM "starts making [Linux] seamless to us, it's going to be a player", said Will Evans, vice president of IT services at Peoples Energy Corp, a Chicago-based utility. "But it's going to take that ... and it's not going to happen tomorrow," Evans said. "It's going to take years."

Some users already appear convinced of the large vendors' commitment to Linux. Consumer products giant Unilever Group, with dual headquarters in London and Rotterdam, Netherlands, announced in January that it was embarking on an eight- to 10-year plan to move its entire IT infrastructure from Unix to Linux, proclaiming that it had confidence in the Linux plans of IBM and HP. But the major vendors also stress that they remain absolutely committed to Unix.

"In no way do I think Unix is entering into any kind of legacy stage," said Nick Bowen, IBM's vice president of xSeries and pSeries software development. IBM has ported Linux to its Power RISC processor, but its AIX version of Unix will be more common than Linux on that platform for years to come, he said.

"The reality of where we are today is that Linux is a very solid four-way [processor] operating system, sort of going to a pretty good eight-way," Bowen said. "AIX is a near-perfect 32-way."

HP, meanwhile, is placing its bets on the Itanium processor it co-developed with Intel and plans to stop development of its PA-RISC chip in 2005. Aside from supporting Windows and Linux on Itanium, HP is stressing that HP-UX on Itanium will match the capability of HP-UX on PA-RISC. The RISC architecture is 20 years old, and "all architectures run their course", said Mark Hudson, vice president for marketing in HP's business-critical systems group.

Competitors see HP's Itanium move as an opening to woo HP-UX users to other Unix systems, Linux and Windows. But Tony Iams, an analyst at DH Brown Associates in New York, said running HP-UX on Itanium will in fact be identical to running it on PA-RISC, so there won't be a steep learning curve for administrators. Moreover, applications won't need to be recompiled.

While Sun, for its part, is staunchly committed to its Solaris version of Unix and to its Sparc RISC chips, it has ported Solaris to Intel's 32-bit chip and is supporting Linux on Intel systems. Clark Masters, executive vice president of Sun's enterprise systems group, claimed that Solaris will remain more advanced than Linux for the foreseeable future. But he sees a peaceful coexistence between Linux (which is a Unix derivative) and Unix in corporate systems.

"I think Linux is a friend of Sun's and a friend of Unix," Masters said. "If [Linux] is any threat in the world to existing franchises, that threat is to Microsoft and the Windows environment."

But Windows may be threatening Unix every bit as much as Linux is threatening Windows.

There's no question that Windows is making a push deeper into the enterprise. Pennsylvania-based Unisys ships an Intel-based server that scales up to 32 processors, and the company says that about 75 per cent of its systems ship with 16 or more processors. "That says that people are putting on big applications, big mission-critical databases, and they are running them on Intel and Windows," said Mark Feverston, vice president of enterprise systems at Unisys.

Indeed, as much as Linux is an emerging presence, Windows is already firmly rooted. UPS has approximately 6000 Windows servers and relies on fault-tolerant Intel-based servers supplied by Stratus Technologies in Massachusetts, to handle its messaging. Gray said Windows is performing well, but as part of his Linux strategy he intends to monitor the evolution of open-source products, such as the MySQL database from MySQL. "But that is more of a dream and desire than anything we think is real in the next two-, three-, four-year time frame," he said.

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