Unix vendors get creative in face of OS competition

IT managers are taking a closer look at their Unix installations in relation to Linux or Windows

A little less than a year ago, Internet Brands, which operates Web sites for big ticket purchases such as cars, homes and mortgages, was looking to rid itself of the big ticket hardware in its data centre.

The company had been running Solaris on expensive Sun boxes since it launched as CarsDirect in 1998. But early last year, as it revamped itself with a new name to reflect its expanded business focus, it also was looking to refresh its hardware, with the aim of cutting costs.

"People wanted to go to Linux," says Min Kang, director of IT at the firm in California.

With Unix maturing out of its expensive, big server days into more flexible packages that, in Sun's case, can even run on competitors' hardware, Kang and his team had broader options.

Today, the company's Web sites, which get about 15 million unique visitors monthly, are supported primarily by Dell servers running Solaris.

"This gives us freedom because Solaris on x86 runs on pretty much anything: you can run it on HP, you can run it on Dell -- you can choose your hardware. But then you also get the reliability of Solaris support and that's my main thing -- support," Kang says. "If Sun didn't have Solaris 10 on x86 we would probably have gone to Linux."

It's that type of scenario that has all the Unix vendors -- HP, IBM and Sun -- on their toes. As x86 servers become increasingly capable, IT managers are taking a closer look at their Unix installations to determine whether a move to Linux or Windows might make sense, analysts say.

"The defensible hill for Unix is the big, vertically scaling, mission-critical application, which is usually some type of database serving," says Andrew Butler, a vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. "But increasingly, the appeal of Windows- and Linux-based systems running on cheaper, commodity hardware is becoming more and more compelling."

At the same time, there remains a huge installed base of Unix systems and the vendors are showing no sign of weakening commitment to their respective operating systems. Enterprise customers can expect updates from all of the Unix vendors in 2007 with the focus on security enhancements, advanced virtualization capabilities and broader management tools. In addition, expect the vendors to roll out lower-priced Unix systems as they aim to compete with the less-expensive hardware that supports Windows and Linux.

The Unix updates and new systems will come despite less-than-encouraging numbers. For the past few years, analyst firms have seen a drag in Unix sales. While the number of installed Unix systems remains strong, Windows and Linux revenue has been on the upswing, while Unix sales have lagged.

Windows servers nudged out Unix for the first time in 2005 with revenues of US$17.7 billion, just topping the US$17.5 billion spent on Unix servers. It was the first time in more than a decade that Unix was not ranked as the No. 1 server operating system, according to IDC.

IDC's latest numbers show Unix servers still in a downturn with a nearly 2 percent decline in revenue for the third quarter of last year compared with the same period a year earlier, while Windows and Linux server sales both jumped about 5 percent compared with the earlier quarter.

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