Does openness mean the end of Unix?

Unix fans have been on the ropes of late. SGI declared bankruptcy last week. Last month, ongoing financial problems at Sun Microsystems led to an executive shake-up. It's not surprising to see the two, highest-profile, Unix-identified vendors in trouble. Things are not looking that bright for Unix anywhere.

Although a few people at Microsoft might think they've had a hand in Sun's and SGI's misfortunes, they'd be wrong. Linux is the culprit. As in some Greek myth, Linux, the unwanted child of Unix, is putting Unix vendors to death.

A look at the Top500 list of supercomputers tells the tale best. In 1998, Unix machines from Sun and SGI combined for 46 percent of the 500 fastest computers in the world. Linux accounted for one (0.2 percent). In 2005, Sun had 0.8 percent -- or four systems -- and SGI had 3.6 percent, while 72 percent of the Top500 ran Linux.

Linux's success in high-end, scientific and technical computing, like that of Unix before it, preceded its success in your data centre. With companies doing more with less, one thing they could dump was Unix.

Sort of. Linux, after all, is Unix, but without a closed licensing agreement. Unix, once the byword for "open systems", has become a synonym for "proprietary". Compared with Windows, of course, Unix remains an "open" platform. Compared with Linux, whose source code has been available to everyone from the outset, Unix looks closed and proprietary.

The problem for Sun and, to a lesser extent, SGI is that for too long, they competed against a brain trust in Redmond, and not the global brain trust that was creating Linux. Therefore, they weren't prepared for how quickly it undercut their business. Linux has forced both SGI and Sun to adopt a "we do Linux better" strategy. The word Unix is never uttered.

IT shops with big Unix operations need not worry. Linux, as most of you already know, can be complementary to or a fine replacement for Unix. Staff skills translate immediately.

I don't intend for this to be an obituary for Sun and SGI. Both companies can come roaring back. This industry has more comeback stories than Hollywood; look at IBM and Apple. But I do think we are seeing the passing of vendor-specific Unix.

And if you look to see who's contributing code to various open source projects, you'll find many programmers who work at SGI, Sun, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and others. They may make their living at companies that depend on Unix, but they work to further the goals of open-source, of which the primary beneficiary is Linux, the killer of Unix. Yes, there's something of a Greek myth in this story.

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