Unix vendors will need soon to abandon ship

Setting aside the legal conspiracy theories regarding Linux/Microsoft/SCO/IBM/The Trilateral Commission/The Freemasons, it’s becoming more and more pertinent to ask the question: what’s the future of commercial dialects of the Unix operating system?

This is an issue of more than passing concern for vendors such as Sun, who have staked their financial future on the combination of a hardware platform and a proprietary Unix version that runs on it. As Linux is ported to more and more platforms, end users now have a choice. Do I want to run Solaris on my Sun Fire Blade server, or Linux? AIX on my IBM pSeries 660, or Linux? The traditional argument that applications software wasn’t available for Linux is no longer true, since just about anything you would want from Oracle to J2EE is now Linux-friendly.

There are three main arguments for the continuing existence of proprietary Unix versions. First, hardware vendors can tune and customize their kernel to best leverage the power of their machine. To make a change to the Linux kernel, you either have to demonstrate that it’s of benefit to all, or arrange to have it optional so that it doesn't negatively effect the other platforms. You are also placing it into the open-source world, meaning that your enhancements might also benefit your competitors.

Offsetting this argument is the fact that hardware vendors aren’t always best at exploiting their own products. It’s a well known piece of history that gcc was a better C compiler than Sun’s commercial offering for Solaris, which led many developers to forego the expensive Sun compiler for the free one that produced better binaries. Similarly, Linux kernel developers have done a pretty good job at optimizing Linux for a variety of platforms, so it’s hard to believe that a proprietary operating system is going to be that much faster.

Secondly, the argument can be made that by buying your hardware and software from the same vendor, you cut down on support headaches and have a one-stop shopping experience. The reality, however, is that even inside a single vendor the software and hardware groups are essentially two different companies. The guy who comes out to fix your disk drive probably couldn’t patch a kernel bug if his RHCE certificate depended on it. Hardware is essentially a commodity item now. You buy the right piece of iron for your needs, and then plop whatever software you want on it.

The last argument is that buying a commercial release gives you a support channel, and someone to sue when things go wrong. But with Red Hat and SuSE offering enterprise versions of Linux complete with 24x7 support and corporate bank accounts to go after if something goes wrong, that argument is shot as well.

In my opinion, the true reality is this: the proprietary Unix market is a dwindling one, consisting mainly of customers who are already dedicated Solaris or AIX shops. As time goes by, the vendors will either transition into being pure hardware players, or go down with their sinking operating systems.

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