In 1984, Californians began putting bumper stickers no their carsemains shy of swapping Unix systems for NT. But what of the future? Will NT become ubiquitous? bearing the message 'Unix: love it or lose it'. It was intended as a boost to get the operating system established as a rival to the proprietary-based systems that had dominated the IT world since the dawn of computing.
The purveyors of proprietary operating systems began fighting back. Unix was not secure enough to run enterprise-wide applications - it was not scalable and there were too few commercial applications available to make it attractive to commercial customers.
If all that sounds a touch familiar, so it should. It is precisely what some vendors are saying today - over a decade later - about Microsoft's Windows NT.
Over the years, a large number of companies have declared Unix their primary operating system, favouring it above proprietary offerings. Digital, Hewlett Packard, ICL and a number of others all placed their hands on their hearts and pledged allegiance to Unix.
IBM, which had more to lose than most vendors if their proprietary systems were ousted in favour of Unix, was eventually forced in 1986 to bow to the inevitable and supply a reduced instruction set computing (Risc) Unix offering - the RT PC, and later on, the RS/6000.
In the early days, even Microsoft offered Xenix, a version of Unix for the PC. Some companies - most notably Sun and Silicon Graphics - moved straight into the Unix market without even developing a proprietary operating system.
Unix was developed in the 1970s in AT&T Bell's laboratories in the US and was rapidly adopted by higher education institutes and the scientific and engineering disciplines. The big selling point of Unix as an operating system was that it was hardware independent. In theory, under Unix, users could change hardware platform and still run their applications.
The reality was rather different. The majority of companies developed their own Unix implementations, which made portability extremely difficult - if not impossible. To make matters worse, attempts to impose a unified Unix standard in the 1980s foundered on the granite-like rock of commercial factionalism.
AT&T formed an alliance with Sun to develop a version of Unix, pioneered by the University of Berkeley in California. In response, IBM, Digital and Hewlett Packard formed the Open Software Foundation (OSF). AT&T, Sun and others responded in turn by forming their own pressure group - Unix International - and the so-called Unix wars were under way. In 1993, AT&T tired of the game and sold Unix to Novell, which later sold it to SCO.
To break out of its scientific and engineering ghetto and into the world of commercial computing, the Unix vendors needed a number of things. The first was to persuade commercial application developers to port their products to Unix, which a large number have done.
But Unix faces a twin onslaught from other operating systems. Unix has always been regarded as synonymous with open systems, used by the vendors as a key selling point. But gradually, the suppliers of proprietary operating systems have made their products more open by using application program interfaces (API), specified by the Open Group, which sets the standards for Unix.
The other challenge comes from Microsoft and NT. Simon White, product marketing manager of the RS/6000 at distributor Bytech Systems, believes that NT and Unix will co-exist for the foreseeable future. He concedes that NT poses some threat to Unix, but argues that many customers will not switch to Microsoft's offering overnight. 'NT offers things that people find attractive, usually in terms of price. They believe the cost of supporting NT is cheaper than Unix,' he says.
Very few of the systems sold by Bytech go to the scientific and engineering sector, according to White. 'The majority of our systems are going into the commercial market and are used for datawarehousing and data mining applications. We have talked to most of our resellers and they have all looked at and played with NT, and are saying they will have products by 1999,' he says.
White believes there is an element of fashion about the number of companies pledging their future loyalty to NT. Although Microsoft's flagship server operating system is being taken up by many customers, it is still relatively new, and according to some observers, it's not stable or scalable enough for enterprise-wide systems. This is clearly not a view shared by National Westminster Bank, which is installing the operating system on Compaq and Dell machines in all its retail branches.
Sun remains the premier supplier and advocate of Unix-based systems, but according to some, it is coming under pressure from NT. Consultancy firm Bloor Research recently alluded to the subject in its report, The Realities of Network Computing, stating: 'Sun's slogan is "the network is the computer".'
The Sun vision is of a myriad of devices on the network, all supplying resources and drawing upon them according to need. It is no coincidence that the internet is heavily based on Sun servers. This market is under threat from Microsoft. Just as Sun made money by offering smaller machines that competed with existing offerings from IBM, Digital and others - and then scaling the results - Microsoft is doing the same to Sun.
The Unix workstation market, which was typically based around Sun Sparc workstations, is nearly dead. Windows NT workstation is now dominant.
As yet, NT is not very scalable, but it is improving. The Microsoft Website is run on NT boxes and handles 35 million hits a day.
Despite its success and huge turnover, Sun is not viewed in the same light by the financial markets as Microsoft and Oracle. It is more on a par with IBM and Intel. 'The money lies in software according to the markets,' says the Bloor Research report.
David Judge, partner marketing manager at Sun, agrees that NT represents a threat to Unix, but argues that there is room for both environments.
'Sun is growing 30 per cent a year in the UK and our workstation volume is growing year on year. We are still one of the fastest growing vendors in the world and it is not Java that is driving that, it is Unix,' he says.
Judge argues that Unix-based systems are infinitely more scalable - with up to 64 processors - than NT systems. 'Unix will still be around because NT is not that scalable. Undoubtedly, both operating systems will survive, but Unix will be around because there is too much of a Unix presence for NT to take over,' Judge says.
He is also critical of Microsoft's marketing campaign to promote NT.
'Microsoft claims that NT 5 rates second only to Solaris (Sun's operating system) on scalability. But NT 5 does not exist as far as I know, so how can you rate something that does not exist,' he says. While he admits NT is selling well, he believes that Microsoft is selling small numbers of the operating system to a larger customer base, which is using them mainly for pilot projects.
Judge's view is endorsed by Peter Gottlieb, director of strategy for Unix software developer Tetra, which specialises in financial manufacturing and distribution software. 'NT is growing very fast, but all the reservations being expressed about it - scalability, stability and security - are directed at the large organisations. It would be interesting to know just how many of those companies that have said they are committing to NT as their primary operating system are actually doing so. I would bet there are not many,' he says.
But Gottlieb is convinced that while Unix will still be a major operating system for the foreseeable future, its vendors may be forced to change direction. 'If you assume that NT will gain a major share of the market, all the Unix expertise that is out there will be used for different purposes, such as leading edge high-performance graphics systems and distributed database. Sun and the other major Unix player will find a new game,' he says.
Tetra supports 40 to 50 resellers in the UK and, according to Gottlieb, NT-based versions of its CS/3 software are in demand - particularly for smaller users. 'Our percentage of NT sales is growing faster than any part of our business, but only among the people who want four, eight or up to 32 workstation applications.
If you look at Java and the NC, you do not need a lot of power on the desktop, but you do need powerful and reliable servers. Corporate customers want less complexity on the desktop and either a powerful Unix server or a mainframe in the background,' Gottlieb says.
This view is shared by Robin Bloor, chief executive of Bloor Research.
'The growth in Windows NT has been phenomenal, but they have picked up the soft part of the market - although Microsoft claimed in a survey that the Web server space is split 50/50 between Unix and NT,' he says.
Bloor believes that NT has reached saturation level at the lower end of the market, while the larger corporates do not see it as scalable or stable enough to take a share of the high end. More surprisingly, he sees a resurgence in sales of Novell Netware as an operating environment.
Novell, of course, was once the proud owner of the Unix source code which it saw as an adjunct to Netware. Netware sales are now going up again.
Over the past three months, it seems that Novell has managed to hold its head up after months of losing out to Microsoft.
'The game where Netware was supposed to roll over and play dead has ended,' Bloor says. On revenue generation alone, Bloor sees IBM, rather than Sun or Hewlett Packard, as the biggest player. 'The RS/6000 is the biggest player in the market when you take into account SP machines. IBM dominates the market. At the high end - machines that sell for between #100,000 and #1 million - it's outselling Sun and Hewlett Packard by a factor of two to three,' Bloor says.
NT's lack of high availability - a critical factor in commercial applications running online transaction processing systems or where 24-hour, 365 days a year continual access is required - is also being questioned. 'Unix can go for months without needing to be rebooted. NT cannot,' Bloor says.
This opinion is enthusiastically supported by owners of the Unix source code, SCO. 'At a recent conference, Microsoft claimed the average NT server could stay up for 25 days, which brought howls of laughter from the audience.
Our Unix servers can stay up for at least 248 days,' says Barry Walker, regional director for SCO UK.
Old-style mainframes running proprietary operating systems have an even more impressive track record. One Japanese Bank demonstrated that its IBM MVS mainframe had not failed for a period of years. Clearly, with the rise of the internet, email and the promise of e-commerce, continuous availability is going to be critical.
David Gurr, SCO product marketing manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, believes NT will eventually overcome its problems, but argues that it will take time. By the time Microsoft stabilises NT and makes it as scalable as Unix or a proprietary operating system, he predicts users' demands will have changed.
SCO makes the point that Microsoft is not just battling against a single rival company but a whole raft of vendors committed to Unix. While this argument is to some extent valid, it also understates the case. Sun and the other vendors committed only to Unix may be able to prevent a united front, but IBM, Digital, Hewlett Packard and others are equally committed to their own particular operating environments, and that includes the much-maligned NT.
There has never been a case where any technology, hardware, software or operating system has superseded all others overnight. It is likely that Unix, NT and the proprietary operating environments will continue to co-exist for the foreseeable future, and the struggle will be to achieve market dominance. But it remains to be seen whether NT is robust enough to claim poll position.
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