Unix Proves It’s Still Full of Life

Unix, the quintessential enterprise workhorse, still has a lot going for it.

Remember Unix, the once and future enterprise juggernaut? Reports of its imminent and inevitable demise have been circulating -- with varying degrees of urgency -- for nearly a decade. Many see the open source software (OSS) Linux operating environment as a de facto replacement for Unix.

There is some truth to this, some Unix advocates concede, but a pair of announcements by Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) -- about new versions of the HP-UX operating environment and HP ServiceGuard clustering software -- along with encouraging market research on the state of Unix server sales, demonstrate that Unix, the quintessential enterprise workhorse, still has plenty of life left.

An ebbing tide lowers all boats, and although Unix server revenues continue to decline, they aren't alone: all server segments were down in Q4 of 2008, according to market watchers Gartner Inc. and IDC.

Unix server sales, however, suffered less than did sales of volume x86 servers.

One upshot of this is that the Unix share of server market revenues paradoxically increased in Q4 of 2008. "While Unix server revenue declined in the fourth quarter, Unix server share of 36 percent of quarterly server-market revenue compares well with the year-ago quarter, when Unix server revenue accounted for 33 percent of quarterly revenue," said IDC research vice-president Jean Bozman, in a statement.

True, Bozman acknowledges, Unix server sales did dip during the same period, dropping to $4.9 billion in Q4 of 2008 (versus $5.2 billion one year ago). However, in view of the battering that the volume server segment took, Unix had a respectable quarter. "[T]he share of total revenue shows continued investment in Unix servers, where customers have invested so deeply over the years to support mission-critical workloads."

Brian Cox, worldwide director of software planning and marketing with HP, says Unix isn't irreplaceable. He concedes, however, that, like the mainframe systems it's been struggling to displace, Unix is nonetheless hard to replace.

"Where you're deploying Unix is typically those most critical or most demanding parts of your data center," he says. "These [Unix-based projects] tend to be long-term infrastructure projects that you're rolling out. You have years of planning that go into those, and -- without completely derailing the project -- they're the things that you want to touch last. Now things that are more tactical or operational, which is where a lot of your [volume] servers are, you cut back on those first."

In the current climate, Cox argues, companies are staying the course on platforms that they know and trust. "Companies know that we go through these business cycles. Do you want to completely stop your infrastructure projects with the knowledge that eventually we are going to come out this [economic downturn] and they're going to be sorely needed? If you do, you aren't going to be in a position to capture the business as it rebounds."

Not coincidentally, Cox contends, HP's newest Unix-centered releases -- HP-UX 11i version 3 and a new revision (A.11.19) of HP's Serviceguard Solutions software -- are consistent with this theme.

For starters, HP-UX 11i v3 offers improved support for blade environments, which Cox says customers are embracing as a more economical alternative -- both in terms of energy costs and overall manageability -- to traditional rack-mounted or standalone server types. The revamped HP-UX also includes "Disk Scrub," a free secure wipe feature, and new support for almost-live migrations, according to Cox.

"A feature like [Disk Scrub] usually costs about $150 per drive, including software licensing costs [and] labor; we provide it now for free. It just gives you the confidence and piece of mind that as you move your servers around, your sensitive data is not going with it," he comments.

"Another thing we've enhanced in the new version is the ability to bring in and install whole new OS versions on your server in its environment while it's still running. We can do it completely online while the system is still running: you can go in, set up another partition on your server while it's running in production, load up on that partition the new OS version, tailor it however you want, and then when there's a lull in activity, you can just reboot the server and you're up and running."

Serviceguard boasts a significantly diminished downtime window: in the event of a failover, Cox says, unavailability has been reduced from 30 seconds to 4 seconds. "You can quickly lose a significant amount of revenue in that amount of time [30 seconds], so by speeding it up that much, it actually broadens the number of industries where [Serviceguard is] relevant -- beyond just the ones where it's obviously critical."

HP-UX runs on both HP's (now-legacy) PA-RISC architecture and on Intel Corp.'s IA-64 (Itanium) architecture. Officials have thus far dismissed suggestions that HP port HP-UX to x86 environments. Cox, for his part, offers a no less categorical -- but, conversely, more informative -- take on the issue.

"When you're going after an environment that is mission-critical, which is really where the focus is, you want to make sure that the full hardware/software stack is in peak condition to have the highest levels of reliability, availability, and serviceability. You want to make sure that you're putting it on a very robust architecture," he comments.

What about HP competitor Sun Microsystems Inc., which supports Solaris on both its high-end UltraSPARC chips and x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) Inc.?

"We just don't have any plans to port HP-UX to x86," Cox explains. "There is a version of a Unix that already runs on x86. It's called Linux. We're already the largest vendor of servers that run Linux … [and] the same release of ServiceGuard for HP-UX also runs on Linux," he concludes. "We also support Solaris on our x86 servers. We just think that really where HP-UX is optimized, we will continue to run it on the most mission-critical platforms."