Making sense of the various Unix strategies of the major hardware and software suppliers has provided long-term employment for an army of analysts, journalists and hangers-on. But now it appears that all that competitive spirit is falling by the wayside in an era of technological Glasnost, as supplier after supplier pledges its future to that Unix-based upstart, Linux.
The latest company to fall under the spell is Hewlett-Packard. Although it has been supporting Linux for some time now, HP is finally putting its money where its mouth is by formally declaring Linux as its third strategic operating system behind HP-UX and Windows.
HP has yet to announce which version of Linux it will choose for its distribution, but it won't be Red Hat as the company has just signed a distribution deal with IBM.
There is a lot of confusion and concern as to what a Linux strategy will mean for HP customers and whether Linux can provide an industrial-strength computing platform.
Much of that concern revolves around the newness of Linux compared to other versions of Unix and whether it will run on different hardware platforms. There are also significant concerns over the availability of applications and their stability.
In an attempt to provide a solid view of what is happening and prove that HP knows what it is about, it recently sent Bruce Perens, its strategic advisor for Linux, on a press tour around the world.
Perens is frank about the issues that Linux faces and understands the concerns of many customers. The first thing that he clarified was the role of Linux over the next few years and its relationship with HP-UX.
Many HP customers have made significant hardware investments in order to run their systems on HP-UX and there are no plans to phase out the system. Indeed, to do so would be an extensive project, requiring testing of the operating system, the production of a large number of hardware drivers and a co-ordinated effort with all hardware and software suppliers.
Unlike the Jini initiative, where hardware suppliers supplied copies of their drivers for others to use, Perens does not believe that Linux will work the same way. While the operating system will continue to contain drivers for common commercial hardware such as printers and monitors, specific drivers for Raid and distributed hardware will need to be tested against each Linux distribution.
There is also a cost factor that will need to be considered. However, this has not prevented HP from developing drivers for all of its consumer technology, and it has now started to look seriously at some of its enterprise equipment. Included in this category are HP's San and NAS back-up solutions.
Software suppliers will also need to be sure that Linux can cope with the requirements of their products. But, with IBM, Dell, Compaq and HP pushing Linux into the mid-range server market, suppliers such as Oracle are already porting enterprise software to Linux.
One issue for commercial software suppliers is the licensing model that currently underpins Linux. Much of the existing development starts out as public domain. If you use any of the software provided under the general public licence you are required to provide your source code in return. With a software industry that has spent years saying that software should not be free, we are likely to see a real battle.
How far up the computing model Linux can go will be determined by the success of the Intel 64-bit processor. Two years ago, there were several suppliers in the running to create a 64-bit version of Unix but, as the launch draws closer and the suppliers have to produce code, Linux looks like it will be the preferred version for most of the major computer suppliers.
HP is responsible for the Linux IA-64 kernel, and the success of this project is likely to have a big impact on the future of HP-UX. Software suppliers will also have a lot to say, and with Microsoft's IA-64 bit support falling further back, Linux could steal the enterprise market away from Microsoft. For HP, supporting both the Microsoft and Linux camps should mean that it can consolidate its grip on the enterprise market.
However, HP has yet to follow the lead of Sun and provide the ability to run Linux applications in native mode on HP-UX. Such a move would allow corporate IT teams to develop and port software on their enterprise platforms and then test it against HP-UX for performance and portability. A substantial benefit of this would be to accelerate the development of Linux into a distributed computing platform.
With the current range of low-power, ultra-thin servers about to be unveiled by Compaq, such a distributed architecture is now within reach. The only thing that has yet to be determined is the operating system that will sit on the machines.
As we move down from servers to workstations, there is a substantial benefit to using embedded Linux in a low-end, thin client rather than a Windows-based operating system. One of the advantages is that the client can have limited local storage, allowing for cacheing of Web data rather than storing it on the server.
Another advantage is the ability to remotely manage devices and allow for the connection of a wide range of local peripherals. As well as the corporate thin-client market, there is substantial interest in thin-client deployment from hotels, whose main income is from business travellers. Remote management, the ability to allow full Internet browsing and VPN (virtual private network) capabilities are issues that hotels have been struggling with for some time. Linux is ideally based to provide this.
With HP due to announce its strategy for the low-end market in the next week, we can expect to see support for both embedded Linux and Linux on the local storage device.
Further down the computing model, the best-selling HP Jornada PDAs are due for an overhaul shortly and there are rumours about HP's commitment to only supplying Windows CE. It is known that HP is currently looking at a new range of processors for these devices and, while HP is keeping details quiet, insiders believe that the next range of processors will be capable of running embedded Linux.
There are also other reasons for HP wanting to look closely at the embedded Linux market. Unlike many of its competitors, HP has an active telecoms equipment business and embedded versions of Unix have long been used in a wide range of telecoms equipment. With an embedded Linux strategy, HP would be able to look at the huge demand for replacement equipment in the telecoms backbone.
This is likely to be extremely lucrative, as the telecoms backbone tries to move from an IPv4-based network to an IPv6-based network. Most Linux distributions already have gateways that will map between these two stacks and HP would be able to take advantage of its experience in packet-switched data management to simplify that transition.
HP, like all the other large computer equipment suppliers, is trying to cover its bets, and the initial impression of its Linux strategy appears to be one of careful thought. Rather than simply try to provide Linux support for a small segment of its customers, HP appears to be trying to position Linux as a complete solution. This is the most positive position to date of any of the big players.