Unix-Linux Convergence

People inthe computer industry -- including IT professionals, vendors, and the analystcommunity -- seem to like a good competitive fight. Nearly everyone takes aside, then roots for the chosen favorite to blow away the competition. Sayanything negative about the favored vendor, and, well, the partisans will giveyou heck.

A few yearsago -- though it seems like a lifetime -- the popular competition was Mac OSvs. Windows. Then there was NetWare vs. Windows NT, and about the same timeperiod the Unix religious wars were raging. The Unix wars were so consuming forthe vendor community that Microsoft sidestepped the fray and was able to launchWindows NT right under the noses of Unix vendors. The Unix industry as a wholecouldn’t respond in a unified manner. This isn’t surprising, the Unix industryhas never acted in a unified manor.

Thedynamics never stop shifting. Today, the emergence of Linux is providinganother challenger. So far, Linux has not emerged as a serious threat on theclient side, at least not in terms of producing shipments that threatenMicrosoft’s dominance of new client operating environment sales.

On theserver side, Linux is causing concern in the Microsoft camp. Not so muchbecause it has stolen sales from Windows NT or Windows 2000, but rather becauseLinux is leaking into the compute infrastructure like water on a leaky roof.This quiet infiltration follows in the footsteps of Windows NT, which alsobegan its life as a technology that seeped in through corporate seals.

While thereis little evidence to suggest that Linux will drive Microsoft out of theoperating systems business, it is clearly causing a shift in market dynamics.One of the first visible casualties was Santa Cruz Operation (SCO). In August,the company sold most of two of its three business units to Linux start-upCaldera Systems Inc. The deal transferred SCO’s entire professional servicesbusiness and most of its server software business to Caldera.

For thepast year, SCO’s product sales have been on shaky ground. Although not a hugelysuccessful growth company, SCO did have the largest server operatingenvironment new license shipment tally of any Unix vendor, a point that oftencomes as a surprise to some in the industry. During the first half of 2000, thecompany’s sales plummeted to less than half the sales it made during the sameperiod of the prior year. Although the company publicly blamed Year2000-related issues, the reality is Linux encroached on the entry-server marketwhere SCO had its best success, and Windows NT encroached in SCO’s VAR channel,making it more difficult for SCO to win when new applications were either purchasedor built.

WithCaldera in the driver’s seat, the company plans to create something called theOpen Internet Platform, which will combine Unix and Linux into a commonplatform for applications. Sort of sounds like the old SPEC 1170 initiativefrom the early 1990s, doesn’t it? Did I say the Unix industry has never actedin a unified manor? Nevertheless, the trend of increasing synergy between Linuxand Unix is not limited to SCO and Caldera.

Hewlett-Packardis moving aggressively to support Linux applications by adding Linux API andABI capabilities to HP-UX 11i. While interoperability on 64-bit Intelarchitecture platforms will be better than on PA-RISC, the fact that HP isgoing this route will give the company a strong Linux/Unix story. Likewise, IBMhas plans, albeit somewhat longer term, to produce API-level compatibilitybetween AIX and Linux. This was first aired in December 1999 when AIX 4.3.3 waslaunched.

It appearsthat the major Unix vendors -- Sun being the notable exception -- are lookingat Linux to grow into the role of becoming their entry-level form of “Unix.” Byoffering application compatibility, applications on these entry platforms canthen scale up to the bigger brothers that are true Unix-branded systems.

Oddly, itis the Unix community, which for so many years fought religious wars againstitself, that now is banking on the success of Linux to drive fresh applicationblood into the Unix market and increase the competitive stature of Unixcompared with Microsoft products.

Thecombination of Linux and Unix on client systems, to entry servers all the wayon up to enterprise-class, large SMP systems presents an interestingcompetitive story to Windows. Will this be enough of a story for users toconsider Unix instead of Windows 2000? And will the Linux desktop take off onceapplication packages emerge that offer 100 percent compatibility with Microsoftdocument formats?

The answersto these questions remain to be seen, but if applications prove to be portablebetween Linux and Unix, it bodes well for the future of the Unix market andensures that Microsoft won’t be able to dominate the server market the way itdominates the client market. --Al Gillenis research manager for system software at IDC (www.idc.com) and former editor in chief ofENT. Contact him at agillen@idc.com.