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What's Left Of Unix?

Vendors are scrapping over what remains of a once-hearty market.
IBM and HP have engaged in dual-pronged operating system strategies. They're happy to provide consulting services to establish low-cost Linux servers in companies, then look for the opportunity to upgrade those servers to their own brand of Unix when customers outgrow Linux on x86 hardware. IBM also has kept its own hardware lines alive by making Linux available on all its servers.

Don't look to IBM to mimic Sun's open-source move with AIX. "We won't open source it," says IBM VP of pSeries servers Karl Freund. "We have an open-source strategy, and it's Linux."

But IBM's strategy of playing both sides has made it a target of a copyright-infringement lawsuit by SCO Group, charging that IBM illegally added SCO's Unix code to Linux. SCO also has filed suits against Linux users AutoZone Inc. and DaimlerChrysler AG; those are on hold pending the outcome of the IBM suit. The legal action has sent a chill through the Linux community, with users uncertain whether they might one day be charged royalties.

Signs Of Life

Still, there are signs that Unix isn't quite ready for retirement. Last month IBM unveiled plans to accelerate AIX development by creating the AIX Collaboration Center on its Austin, Texas, campus to house its leading Unix software engineers and Power chip designers. IBM will invest $200 million in the center over the next two years, though that figure includes a lot of existing AIX developers and resources. IBM officials hedge when asked just how much the company spends annually on AIX research and development. "We don't roll the numbers that way," says Freund.

Oracle joined the AIX center as a founding partner and pledged to work with IBM engineers to ensure that Oracle's applications run well on AIX barely a month after embracing Solaris as its preferred development and deploy-ment platform for its data-base software. "IBM has become the leader in the Unix marketplace. Our partnership will allow Oracle to take advantage of the momentum they have generated," Oracle president Charles Phillips said in a statement last month. Oracle's fickleness--endorsing Solaris one month and AIX the next--is rooted in pragmatism: It has spent billions on application development and acquisitions like PeopleSoft, and it wants to be sure it can sell those apps to the huge AIX installed base.

So references to "dead Unixes" may be premature. For many companies, Unix still represents reliability and scalability. "Linux is good, but the mature Unixes are more proven, more stable," Overstock's Peterson says. "We'd like to run Linux everywhere, but even at Overstock, we still need the old Unixes."

Unix's future hinges partly on future development and support and partly on how long vendors can make money at it. "Unix will clearly survive as a legacy operating system, as there is an enormous investment in Unix hardware that won't go away any time soon," says Joshua Greenbaum, an analyst with Enterprise Applications Consulting. "But I don't know of anyone whose initial software development plans specify Unix. That's a very 20th century idea."

Illustration by Red Nose Studio

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