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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Market shifts already are happening: SGI last year announced that it would no longer sell the Unix-based systems the company was built on and is hoping a shift in focus to Linux and x86-based hardware will help pull it out of bankruptcy; by year-end analysts expect HP, which is transitioning its HP-UX customers onto Itanium, to stop selling its PA-RISC systems.

"We see Unix coming under increasing attack," Gartner's Butler says. "And frankly, we don't believe there is any way that Unix is likely to truly grow in the future. In other words, it has seen its best days."

But with the number of legacy Unix systems huge -- IDC pegged it at 3.5 million last year -- enterprise buyers should not expect their Unix vendors to forsake them anytime soon, analysts say. What they can expect, however, is an interesting year as the vendors figure out the best approach to shoring up their Unix businesses. In the past, most vendors had a similar message and strategy and the market hinged on straightforward performance, analysts say.

"But we're getting into a maturing market where all of the players have solid equipment, solid operating systems and good [independent software vendor] support, so the differentiator here now isn't speeds and feeds so much, it's business value and what kind of business value customers can get out of their Unix systems," says Dan Olds, principal at Gabriel Consulting Group.

Sun is a prime example. By opening its Solaris operating system to a variety of vendor platforms, it is hoping the business value of the operating system alone will outweigh the draw of Linux or Windows even as customers move to lower-priced hardware.

"The way the industry has dealt with Unix in the past has been to look at it as a system, so you look at Solaris and Sun hardware and it's all packaged together," says Tom Goguen, vice president of the software group at Sun. "From our perspective, that's a very old view of what the industry is all about."

In addition to providing support for Solaris on x86 hardware, Sun open sourced the Solaris 10 code in January 2005 and says that more than 6.5 million licenses have been downloaded since then.

"Key to [re-invigorating Solaris] is we didn't restrict the operating system to our hardware or Sparc hardware," Goguen says. "We had to change our business model and we did: we made the product free and broadly available."

The challenge for Sun will be attracting new customers -- as well as ISVs -- away from Windows and Linux, especially now that Web-based applications are written in operating system-agnostic languages such as Java and .Net.

"What I see Sun doing is reawakening ISV interest in Solaris. But ISVs are not going to abandon their commitment to Windows and Linux for Tier 1 versions of their products," Gartner's Butler says. "What Sun can hope for is to put Solaris in a position that is higher priority than AIX or HP-UX."

HP and IBM, meanwhile, have solid Linux and Windows businesses to fall back on but aren't sitting still when it comes to the Unix market.

HP, for example, late last year added security updates to HP-UX 11i, integrating encryption capabilities directly into the operating system and has plans to enhance automation and management within virtual environments when it releases HP-UX 11i version 3 early this year.

IBM also is focusing on virtualization and security. Power6 and AIX 5.4, both due this year, will provide better utilization rates in virtualized environments by enabling users to move running partitions among servers. In addition, the new release of AIX, due mid-year, will add security features such as encrypted file systems and the ability to patch a running operating system, says Karl Freund, vice president of marketing for IBM System P.

"In 2007, enterprise buyers can expect the vendors to keep pushing the bar up in terms of business value, manageability, utilization and getting more bang for the buck when it comes to Unix systems," Gabriel Consulting's Olds says. "While it's not getting any easier to be a Unix vendor, I don't see any of the vendors dropping out any time soon. If anything, it's going to become more of a dogfight."