The future of Unix Part 1: IBRS' view

Ian Yates kicks off a three-part Q&A on the future of Unix in conversation with IBRS analyst Dr Kevin McIsaac.

In these interviews, TechTarget ANZ's Ian Yates speak with analyst Kevin McIsaac from IBRS, Sun Microsystems' Laurie Wong and IBM's Phil MacLochlainn. The hypothetical is the death of Unix at the hands of Linux.

Ian Yates (IY): Once upon a time main frames ruled the datacentres but then mini-computers reared their lower-cost heads. Eventually the mini-computers all converted to run some form of Unix and things started to look stable in the datacentre.

But recently Unix has come under attack from Windows and Linux servers offering even lower costs due to cheaper hardware from Intel and AMD. Now Unix has fought back and Sun Solaris for example, is now available on those Intel and AMD platforms. But will this be enough to keep the barbarians from the glass doors?

Is Unix just another legacy operating system whose time has passed? Let's start by asking analyst Kevin McIsaac from IBRS.

Kevin McIsaac (KM): I would say that Solaris, HP UX, AIX all became what you might class legacy, probably about 2005. They are still used. They still run a lot of workloads but the growth rates on them are fairly slow and a lot of new workloads are being run on either Windows or Linux.

I think what it comes down to is that all products go through a cycle of growth and maturity and at some stage they get to a point where they are beyond good enough. Then only a very small section of the users really need the advanced features and the good enough products, which are literally Linux and Microsoft Windows, are actually good enough! So people say well why do I need to go down the Solaris or AIX route when I can get Microsoft on Intel?

So instead people start looking for more scalability, as in the case of Solaris or more advanced features or whatever it is. They say I've got everything I need, what else could I get? Then when they start looking at Intel-based hardware they found they could get the hardware much, much cheaper and buy more of them.

So people started looking at alternatives not just to the old ways but just saying geez, really that part, it's all good enough. I think with the databases becoming very sophisticated and then the middle ware such as the application server and web server becoming very sophisticated, they have taken a lot of the advantages away from the bigger OS's.

IY: You no longer need a super duper engine; you just need any kind of engine that keeps running in the background to do what's needed.

KM: What people are saying is what I need is good enough and then they start looking at other attributes. Hey, if I can get good enough but I can get it cheaper on Intel hardware or I can get good enough and I can get my hardware from four different players rather than being locked into Sun or locked into IBM or HP. You'd be nuts not too right?

So what people are looking for is that once they get to good enough, they start choosing other characteristics and the major mistake that Sun made was that they killed off Solaris on Intel back in something like 1997.

IY: Yeah but they have resurrected it haven't they?

KM: But too late! Linux has come along, Windows has come along and it runs really well on Intel.

CIOs don't care anymore. There is a lot of great stuff about Solaris but guess what? The mainframes had a lot of that for twenty five years and I left the main frame to go to Solaris back in the eighties.

I think organisations like Sun are kidding themselves. They should know from their historical roots that good enough trumps best and Linux and Windows are for most people, good enough!

IT: IBM seems to have seen the writing on the wall. They don't actively push AIX do they? They offer Linux.

KM: Well they offer both. At the end of the day, they're a very different company. IBM doesn't rely on its proprietary hardware revenue. They have got AIX, the T-Series, the mainframe and they've got all their storage kit. They've got all this Intel gear, they used to have PCs and now they've got services. Really, they've got all that middleware. What's Sun got? Sun's got Solaris and it's got Sparc. They don't have anything else that makes money really.

IY: And it's hardware that only runs Solaris.

KM: Exactly right. Sparc runs Linux now and they're putting Xen [virtualisation] on it and they've got their new multi-threaded stuff. All very nice but it's literally at the end, it's the whole thing of what Solaris did to the mainframe, Linux and Windows are now doing to Solaris. Good enough replaces best.

IY: What's HP's stance? Are they not worried? They are not pushing their version of Unix very hard these days are they?

KM: They have a team who sell the Integrity stuff. If I'm an IBM, AIX T-Series specialist, they beat their drum damn hard. If I'm an HP UX Integrity guy, I would beat my drum damn hard but at the end of the day both of those companies have alternate revenues.

HP makes an absolute squillion on printer cartridges and they do reasonably well out of PCs. Whether or not Integrity makes money for them - which for many years it has not and some years it has - who really cares? It's a small part of the total offering.

Sun's problem is that it has one string to its bow or two. Sparc and Solaris, I begged them for years to tell me how much money they have made off Java or any other piece of software they have and they are always very coy and tell me how many licenses have been downloaded.

IY: Well they give it away.

KM: Well they give it away and sell some of it. Who knows? If they are making real money out of it, damn well they would stand up and tell me but they have never told me.

They've got two strings and neither of those strings are terribly powerful anymore.

I was the author of a research paper at Meta Group called 'Sun is the next Digital'. And I still stand by that. They are just taking a really long time to slide into obscurity. Jonathon Schwarz has done some reasonable work in halting that slide through making things open source and bringing on Intel but he hasn't turned the company around. Revenue has been flat for five or six years now. Profits are up marginally and they are making a little bit of money.

IY: So they are surviving on existing contracts and upgrades to existing kit.

KM: They are selling a little bit of the other stuff but it is not enough to call it a turnaround. At the same time, you look at where IBM has gone in the last five or six years and they have doubled or tripled their revenues. Their profits are really high; they have junked stuff like the PC where they don't make money. They have invented a whole new business in consulting. So personally, I think Unix is lovely. I grew up as a Unix administrator and I love Unix, fantastic. But Linux and Windows are good enough!

This interview is also featured on Ian's weekly podcast A Series of Tubes.

NEXT: The view from Sun's Laurie Wong

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