What's Left Of Unix?

Vendors are scrapping over what remains of a once-hearty market, as Linux becomes the replacement base for many Unix server and application installations. But pragmatism and comfort zones should make

January 23, 2006

12 Min Read
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For 35 years, the Unix operating system has been a mainstay of the computer industry, from its origins as a time-sharing system used by horn-rimmed academics to its central role running some of today's most powerful servers. But enthusiasm for this sophisticated piece of code is in decline as sales flatten, while Linux, the Unix-like alternative, thrives. Which leads to the inevitable question: Is Unix itself on the wane?

The past few years haven't been kind to Unix. Two longtime commercial backers, Hewlett-Packard and IBM, have diverted resources and energy into promoting Linux at the expense of their Unix offerings. Sun Microsystems' Solaris wasn't selling so well, so it embarked on an open-source strategy to give it away. SCO Group, which owns the venerable Unix System V code base, is distracted by intellectual-property lawsuits against IBM and other Linux backers. John Loiacono, Sun's senior VP of software, recently referred to HP-UX and IBM's AIX as "the dead Unixes." Competitive bluster to be sure, but Loiacono may not be far off in that assessment.

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In the '90s, Unix was set to become the dominant operating system for heavy-duty computing, with Windows the only threat. But the rise of Linux and steady maturation of Win-

dows have darkened Unix's future. Spending for Unix licenses and maintenance was just over $2 billion in 2004, down $51 million from the year before, according to IDC, which predicts the market will be stagnant over the next few years.

"Run anything we can on Linux"--that's Ohio Savings Bank's strategy, says enterprise information manager Miller.Photo by Russell Lee

With hardware included, the market is bigger, yet still struggling. Unix server revenue (IDC calls it "factory revenue") amounted to $3.9 billion in the third quarter of 2005, a 0.4% decline compared with the same period a year earlier, while unit shipments dropped 13.7% year to year. By comparison, Linux server unit shipments jumped 20.5% in the third quarter of 2005, compared with a year earlier, and Windows server unit shipments climbed 15.3%. There was also this milestone in the third quarter: Windows servers accounted for the largest slice of the overall server market for the first time ever, according to IDC.

It doesn't help that most commercial applications today are written for Windows or in Java, which runs well on Linux computers, rather than aimed at a specific Unix system.

Longtime Unix customers are bailing out. This past weekend, Ohio Savings Bank planned to move its core mortgage-processing application off of five megaservers running HP-UX to a cluster of low-cost Linux servers. As a next step, it's considering discontinuing the maintenance agreements covering the retired HP-UX servers. The bank already had transferred its Oracle database from HP-UX to Linux systems. At some point it would like to move its largest system, a data warehouse on a 12-CPU server running IBM's AIX, to a Linux cluster as well.

"The only place we still use HP-UX is where the application is not available under Linux. Our goal is to run anything we can on Linux," enterprise information manager Tony Miller says, noting that the strategy has cut maintenance, development, and operations costs for the bank. Ohio Savings uses 23 Linux servers, 13 for database hosting and development and 10 to host production applications. Miller estimates the bank could save $80,000 to $100,000 annually if it phases out some of its remaining HP-UX maintenance agreements.

Not Dead YetIT professionals are a pragmatic bunch, however, so it will be many years before Unix slides into oblivion. HP routinely supports HP-UX releases for up to 10 years, while Sun maintains backward compatibility from one Solaris release to another to ensure longevity. Unix's decline will be like watching ice melt on a 33-degree day. "We're still going to need those beefy boxes," says Sam Peterson, CIO and senior VP of technology at online retailer Overstock.com Inc. Overstock switched its Oracle databases and E-commerce system from an eight-way HP-UX server to four Dell servers running Red Hat Linux in 2003. But it still runs its accounting and ERP applications on IBM's pSeries servers running AIX.

Even in decline, the $2 billion of Unix software sold in 2004 still dwarfed the $198 million spent on Linux. That fact isn't lost on IBM, HP, and Sun, which are engaged in a ferocious battle to hold onto what remains of the Unix market.

One of the big problems with Unix is that it's not just one operating system but many. In addition to the big three from HP, IBM, and Sun, they range from the freebie BSD Unix to Apple Computer's Mac OS X. Unix historian Eric Levenez lists more than 200 flavors of Unix on his Web site (www.levenez.com). Ten years ago, the computer industry attempted to unite Unix by agreeing to a set of common APIs that made it possible to develop a business application once and run it across any Unix brand. That effort was partly successful but not enough to slow Linux and Windows.

Predicting what happens next requires insight into more than just software. The leading Unixes have always been tied to high-performance chip architectures. AIX, for example, runs on IBM's Power 5 chips in pSeries servers. But the trade-off has been that Unix servers are more expensive than those running x86 chips.

For years, Solaris was closely tied to Sun's Sparc architecture and advanced along with the Ultra- Sparc designs. But there was a hiccup when Sun talked up then canceled UltraSparc V in April 2004 in favor of a revised Sparc IV, a dual-core chip called Niagara. It launched Niagara in December 2005, six months early, in an attempt to keep up with dual-core advances of IBM, Intel, and AMD. Sun also has begun selling Solaris-on-AMD servers, an admission that Sparc alone wasn't a viable strategy. (Sun had long offered a version of Solaris that ran on x86 computers, but it was a kludgy and distant second to Solaris-on-Sparc in priority.)HP-UX is part of HP's Precision Architecture, and its fate is now tied to the joint HP/Intel Itanium chip. Itanium has gotten off to a sputtering start, and Itanium server adoption has been hampered by a lack of applications tuned for the processor. Application availability is "our No. 1 priority," says Don Jen-kins, HP's VP of business-critical servers.

IBM's Power 5, Intel's Pentium 4 and Xeon, and AMD's Opteron have emerged as the fastest 64-bit chips, putting pressure on all others. IBM's AIX and HP-UX vied for the No. 1 slot last year, according to IDC. In the third quarter of 2005, HP held 32% of the worldwide Unix server market, based on revenue; IBM and Sun trailed close behind at 30% and 26%, respectively.

Sun's Strategy

Sun last year took the radical step of releasing Solaris as open source, a move intended to stabilize Sun's declining Unix-systems business, but one that raises new questions about the future of Solaris. Solaris licenses are likely to keep slipping at least temporarily now that Sun is giving the operating system away. And while Sun's move to open source will inevitably lure some customers, the business model makes Jeff Carr nervous. "I don't really know what it is," says Carr, systems architect for the state of North Dakota. North Dakota's IT department was planning to migrate its Oracle database off a Solaris server to Linux. Oracle has been a booster of Linux, and the move was recommended by the company's sales representative. But Oracle CEO Larry Ellison threw the state's plans into question when he referred to Solaris 10, in a November statement, as "the preferred development and deployment platform for Oracle." Ellison noted that two-thirds of the 3.5 million downloads of Solaris 10 were aimed at the x86 architecture. "It's impossible to ignore the significant market opportunity created by the incredible growth of Solaris 10," Ellison said.

Based on that endorsement, North Dakota halted its database migration in its tracks and will keep Oracle on the Sun server.The incident illustrates why Sun made Solaris open source in the first place. Historically, it occupied the low end of the Unix server market, compared with HP and IBM, a reflection of Sun's workstation heritage. So Linux incursions were affecting Sun more than its competitors, says Gary Hein, an analyst with the Burton Group.

Sun not only made Solaris open source, but it also took other steps to make it "look more like Linux," Hein says. Solaris' maintenance fees now match or undercut Red Hat Inc.'s for Linux. And its open-source Common Development and Distribution License comes with a crack community of independent software developers. Independent developers may make additions to Solaris 10 and keep them proprietary rather than having to give them back to the community, provided they haven't changed the underlying Solaris code. The provision encourages Solaris development, since authors can retain their work and sell it for profit.

Solaris now shares with Linux the distinction of being the Unix that runs best on Intel hardware. It's the only mature Unix to try to move toward the low end of the market or across the line that used to separate x86 servers from their high-performance, RISC-chip competition. That move gives Sun a volume play.

Much of the server growth is in Web, application, and distributed database servers close to the people who use them. Chances are that even the lowest-cost chips, such as Intel's and AMD's dual-core processors, can satisfy those power requirements. Hence, the fierce competition to hang on to what's left of the Unix market. "The real problem is that the server market is growing again, but Linux and Windows are absorbing all the growth," Hein says.

Sun may have chosen the right moment to make Solaris open source if it lets the company participate in that growth. The move already has spawned several non-Sun distributions of OpenSolaris, including SchilliX, BeleniX, and Nebuntu. "We'd like to see IBM and HP move to Solaris," Loiacono says, only half jokingly. But he acknowledges Sun can't get away with merely putting a free copy of Solaris on an x86 server. It must follow up with sales of its Java Enterprise System middleware and Solaris support contracts to make the gamble pay off.Open-Source Origins

Sun is the only mature-Unix vendor true to AT&T's earliest vision for the operating system. Back in the 1970s, AT&T offered Unix for a small fee to researchers and universities as an "open" alternative to IBM's proprietary OS. But as proprietary versions of Unix proliferated in the early 1980s, grad student Richard Stallman, working in MIT's artificial intelligence lab, set about making a set of tools, which he labeled GNU tools, with which to build free software. (For more on Stallman, see story, Freedom Fighter.) Linus Torvalds combined those tools with a rewritten Unix kernel to create Linux. IBM and HP have engaged in dual-pronged operating system strategies. They're happy to provide consulting services to establish low-cost Linux servers in companies, then look for the opportunity to upgrade those servers to their own brand of Unix when customers outgrow Linux on x86 hardware. IBM also has kept its own hardware lines alive by making Linux available on all its servers.

Don't look to IBM to mimic Sun's open-source move with AIX. "We won't open source it," says IBM VP of pSeries servers Karl Freund. "We have an open-source strategy, and it's Linux."

But IBM's strategy of playing both sides has made it a target of a copyright-infringement lawsuit by SCO Group, charging that IBM illegally added SCO's Unix code to Linux. SCO also has filed suits against Linux users AutoZone Inc. and DaimlerChrysler AG; those are on hold pending the outcome of the IBM suit. The legal action has sent a chill through the Linux community, with users uncertain whether they might one day be charged royalties.

Signs Of LifeStill, there are signs that Unix isn't quite ready for retirement. Last month IBM unveiled plans to accelerate AIX development by creating the AIX Collaboration Center on its Austin, Texas, campus to house its leading Unix software engineers and Power chip designers. IBM will invest $200 million in the center over the next two years, though that figure includes a lot of existing AIX developers and resources. IBM officials hedge when asked just how much the company spends annually on AIX research and development. "We don't roll the numbers that way," says Freund.

Oracle joined the AIX center as a founding partner and pledged to work with IBM engineers to ensure that Oracle's applications run well on AIX barely a month after embracing Solaris as its preferred development and deploy-ment platform for its data-base software. "IBM has become the leader in the Unix marketplace. Our partnership will allow Oracle to take advantage of the momentum they have generated," Oracle president Charles Phillips said in a statement last month. Oracle's fickleness--endorsing Solaris one month and AIX the next--is rooted in pragmatism: It has spent billions on application development and acquisitions like PeopleSoft, and it wants to be sure it can sell those apps to the huge AIX installed base.

So references to "dead Unixes" may be premature. For many companies, Unix still represents reliability and scalability. "Linux is good, but the mature Unixes are more proven, more stable," Overstock's Peterson says. "We'd like to run Linux everywhere, but even at Overstock, we still need the old Unixes."

Unix's future hinges partly on future development and support and partly on how long vendors can make money at it. "Unix will clearly survive as a legacy operating system, as there is an enormous investment in Unix hardware that won't go away any time soon," says Joshua Greenbaum, an analyst with Enterprise Applications Consulting. "But I don't know of anyone whose initial software development plans specify Unix. That's a very 20th century idea."

Illustration by Red Nose Studio

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