Winning the OS game

Just a couple of years ago, the commercial OS landscape looked bleak. For most businesses the only real options were Windows and platform-bound Unix from IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., or Hewlett-Packard Co.

But anyone depressed about the lack of innovation in this recession should take a fresh look at the operating system market, starting with IBM and Apple Computer Inc.

IBM's romance with Linux is hardly a low-profile affair. Like a cad who tells everyone what he paid for his wife's diamond ring, IBM can't shut up about the US$1 billion it supposedly spent on Linux. The fruit of that relationship is more valuable than the PR.

Observers (and notably, competitor Sun) expected IBM's AIX to be history by now. The fact that AIX is still IBM's flagship Unix is proof of $1 billion well spent. IBM gained an insider's perspective on Linux that led the company to take its time with migration. There may be only one point on which IBM and Sun agree, and that is that Linux is not yet fully cooked. Not for servers of scale, at any rate.

Technical documentation for IBM's systems spell out Linux's handicaps in plain terms: It won't scale up and it is not bulletproof. But IBM believes the 2.5 kernel will fix a lot of problems. IBM advises running Linux on no more than eight CPUs at once because the gains from symmetric multiprocessing are poor compared to AIX.

On servers that support partitioned operation, IBM advises running a mix of AIX and Linux so that customers can benefit from AIX's availability, reliability, and management (or autonomic) features. At the same time, IBM is watching and working with Linux developers to build enterprise scalability and stability into the OS. An operating system can't be a rush job.

IBM's seemingly tentative approach toward Linux adds up to keen business sense. Everyone agrees that AIX is duller than dishwater. Linux has brought a much-needed sense of invention and play to IBM's dreary hallways. But early fears that IBM would co-opt Linux are unfounded; most Linux for IBM platforms is made by other vendors such as SuSE. Portrayals of IBM as a half-hearted participant in the open-source community ring hollow. IBM's commitment to Linux is real and enthusiastic, but its strategy is tempered with sound reason.

If IBM is wading into open source, Apple's cannonballing right into the deep end. OS X Server, or Darwin for non-Mac users, is a brilliant open-source OS. Apple holds a few parts of OS X proprietary, most notably its Cocoa graphical application framework. But the bulk of OS X is true open source, including Apple innovations Rendezvous and Open Directory.

Apple's traditional status as a niche player allowed it to sneak OS X in as though it were the next humdrum version of the desktop Mac OS. Apple's engineers speak in subdued tones about OS X, but they're not fooling us. These seemingly humble geeks are just keeping competitors calm while they sharpen their teeth.

OS X's ingredients speak to Apple's commitment. There's Mach, the Carnegie-Mellon microkernel that provides a lightweight, unbreakable bottom layer for critical OS services. Then there is BSD 4.4, the granddaddy of open-source projects, the original SunOS and what loyalists consider to be the One True Unix. Blend in the object-oriented Objective-C (and by inheritance, Objective-C++) programming language and the NeXT-derived Cocoa application framework at the API layer. Add Java 1.4, OpenGL, Apache, QuickTime Streaming Services, QuickTime Broadcaster, Rendezvous, Open Directory, and a kitchen sink's worth of standard services, tools, and documentation. And did we mention Java?

The icing on this deceptively harmless-looking cake is that the whole shooting match is built on the GNU compiler tools and is designed for rapid portability. That means OS X can go just about anywhere, just as BSD does. Check out the platforms list at http://netbsd.org. Our money is on OS X managing the transition to 64-bit (and mixed 32/64 architectures such as Power and AMD Hammer) with consummate poise. Even though it was relatively late to the game, Apple looks more like its commercial Unix counterparts than Microsoft.

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