Is Unix now a legacy operating system? It's a radical thought, especially since Unix was originally seen as the open alternative to proprietary dinosaur mid-range offerings such as Prime and DEC's VMS. But with Windows 2000 and Linux getting all the attention, the suggestion no longer seems unusual.
Industry experts say there is a grain of truth in the legacy allegation. According to Dan Kusnetzky, IDC's vice-president of systems software, Unix - and especially Unix-on-Intel operating systems such as Caldera's OpenUnix (formerly Unixware) - is feeling the pressure at the low end of the server market.
"Linux can do many of the things that Unix can, but at a drastically lower software cost." Kusnetzky explains. Meanwhile, Microsoft has been assiduously wooing software suppliers in traditional Unix-on-Intel vertical markets such as retail.
Despite this, Kusnetzky predicts that Unix will remain the dominant operating system in terms of revenues until the end of 2003 - although it is already in third place behind its rivals in terms of volume shipments - and will continue to enjoy a strong position in the datacentre.
"There is a perception that Unix is retreating into the computer room to escape from Windows and Linux, but that does not mean it is dying," he says. "It can now scale enough and is available enough to take on low-end mainframe tasks, and we are seeing it well entrenched in terms of server consolidation."
So who are the main players in the Unix market? Last year, according to IDC, the number one supplier was Sun Microsystems with Solaris, followed by Caldera in second place, IBM with AIX in third, and Hewlett-Packard trailing in fourth with HP/UX.
Together, these suppliers make up 80% of the market, with all of the other players squabbling over the remaining 20%, including Compaq's Tru64 Unix, which is hanging on to a mere 4% market share.
This indicates that while the Unix market may have consolidated, with niche Unixes such as Silicon Graphic's Irix now mostly in maintenance, the vast majority of the installed base is still with suppliers that continue to invest in their offerings.
However, just to ensure that things do not get too simple, all of the major Unix suppliers have now also jumped on the Linux bandwagon, including Sun, which finally bit the bullet at the start of February. The rationale appears to be that even if the company loses a few hundred pounds by selling a system that runs Linux rather than its own flavour of Unix, at least customers will not have taken their business elsewhere. And there is always the hope that it might be able to throw in some value-added software or services to boot.
Such a tack will inevitably cause brand positioning problems, particularly for suppliers such as HP and IBM, which also sell Windows.
The real answer to Unix's legacy conundrum is to see a change in operating system deployment topology. While acknowledging that each user site is different, Chris Franklin, UK marketing manager for enterprise servers at Hewlett-Packard, believes that, as a rule of thumb, Unix is being deployed at the heart of the datacentre to run mission-critical applications and big Oracle databases.
Such machines tend to be surrounded by application and Web servers, typically either Unix or Windows NT/2000, while Linux is being used to run so called "edge" servers. These sit at the edge of the datacentre, acting as caching servers for Web sites, proxy, firewall and routing servers.
"Linux is having an impact more at the low end of the Windows market than the Unix end because customers are now moving to Unix as a mainframe replacement," says Franklin, with the proviso that Windows NT/2000 running Exchange is taking over from Unix as the default enterprise mail server.
Andy Jordan, server marketing manager at Unisys UK, a company now specialising in pushing the Windows NT/2000 server option, is less sure that Unix is not starting to feel the pain.
Jordan is adamant that Windows 2000 Datacentre Edition, which has been on the market for 18 months, is a real contender in the Unix space. "Unix is being squeezed from the top by the mainframe, and at the bottom from Windows 2000," he says.
This, Jordan believes, will become even more marked in 2004/2005, when the adoption of Intel's 64-bit chips kicks in, because suppliers of Unix-on-Risc systems will price themselves out of the market.
So while few would contend that Unix is on the scrap heap at the moment, Kusnetzky makes an important point. "The legacy label should be translated as an all-important system that someone else wants to replace," he says.
"It takes a long time for an operating system to achieve a level of trustworthiness where organisations are prepared to put major, critical applications on it. But once a platform is deemed trustworthy, it is almost never abandoned.'" That's a legacy definition Unix would be happy to acknowledge.
What roles are the main operating systems fulfilling?
Unix is mainly being used as:
- A database server, particularly for high-end installations in the datacentre
- A server consolidation tool. Buying fewer but larger servers supporting higher numbers of users can lead to cheaper per-user licence fees than installing multiple smaller boxes
- An application and Web server
- A replacement for low-end mainframes
Linux is mainly being used as:
- An edge server. This means it is being deployed as a proxy server, firewall server, FTP (File Transfer Protocol) server, and a Web caching and streaming server
- A file and print server
Windows NT/2000 is mainly being used as:
- An application server
- A Web server
- A departmental database server
- A mail server, running Microsoft Exchange, where it is starting to replace Unix as the default
Case Study: Ryanair
Irish airline Ryanair is a company that is still investing in Unix. Last summer it upgraded its Unix environment to cope with the increased workload stemming from its current annual growth rate of 20%.
The company had been running its Netline scheduling application on a Hewlett-Packard 9000 series K-Class Unix server since 1995, but it needed something bigger that could handle not only current demand but also requirements five years into the future.
The mission-critical package schedules flight slots for aircraft, assigns crews, anticipates delays, proposes solutions and gives critical-error warnings. Ryanair says that if the system went down for a period of more than four hours the airline would face a critical situation.
As a result, the company spent three months evaluating new machines, which included IBM and Dell offerings, but finally plumped for an HP
N-Class server based on four 550MHz PA 8600 Risc CPUs. The firm is using its old K-Class server as a mirror for back-up purposes.