Unix war flares

SAN MATEO (02/26/2001) - By any measure, Sun Microsystems Inc. is at the top of its game. Sun leads the Unix hardware market with its Enterprise server and Ultra workstation lines, and its Java programming language and Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) application platform are the foundation for an increasing number of commercial applications. Sun's iPlanet partnership with Netscape augments its Java revenue with direct sales of enterprise application and Web server products.

Yet as all-encompassing as Sun's empire has become through development and acquisitions, its most successful ventures revolve around a common element: the Solaris operating system.

Last year Sun lowered the price of a one-to seven-CPU Solaris 8 license to US$75. Sun's move was more symbolic than significant, as its most profitable servers have eight or more CPUs and no similar price cut was extended to Solaris support, consulting, or add-ons. Even so, Sun managed to send the message that Unix, and operating systems in general, have little intrinsic value. In Sun's view, Unix is less a product unto itself than an invisible foundation for proprietary server systems and enterprise software solutions.

The second-and third-ranked Unix players, IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., respectively, take a different view. Whereas Sun sees a bright future in proprietary Sparc hardware, IBM and HP are betting their Unix fortunes on Intel's soon-to-be-released 64-bit enterprise CPU architecture now dubbed Itanium (formerly IA-64 and Merced). Within five years, market research company Gartner expects Intel's nascent 64-bit processor line to account for nearly $12 billion in revenue. Microsoft Windows will be running on most of these systems, but AIX and HP-UX will split the remainder almost equally.

Companies not already acquainted with AIX and HP-UX may be surprised to learn that IBM and HP have such a strong presence in the Unix market. It surprised us when both vendors signed on to support this third-party CPU, given the rough history of Unix operating on Intel processors. Previous attempts to make Unix work on commodity PC hardware commercially failed. Vendors prized incompatibility, using nonstandard features to differentiate their OSes. Developers got fed up with having to recode software for each flavor of Intel Unix and eventually gave up. And that's when PC Unix started to go downhill.

This time looks as though it will be different: IBM and HP will bring their rich portfolios of enterprise applications with them to Itanium.

Even if Itanium does ship this year, it will take two or three years for it to establish credibility as an enterprise CPU architecture. Until then, IBM and HP will hone their Unix offerings on their very capable Power and PA-RISC platforms.

Once Itanium takes hold, consumers will have the freedom to choose from AIX, HP-UX, Linux, or Windows for their entry-level to midrange enterprise servers and go with the proprietary hardware to do the larger jobs.

Either way, all will run Java and feature strong support for relevant standards. That's the kind of choice that defines "open," and it's about time. Far from being over, the Unix race is just heating up.

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