Will Linux Pull the Plug on Unix in the Enterprise?

Is Linux positioned to sound the death knell for Unix, or is there still a place in corporate IT shops for Linux's aging uncle? A Datamation reporter explores the answer.
Posted September 16, 2003

Drew Robb

Drew Robb

For years now, Open Source advocates have been saying Linux will take over the entire UNIX field. And unlike its aging uncle, Linux's inherent design necessitates unity.

''Because of the nature of Linux, the vendors have to cooperate and have a common operating system, unlike UNIX,'' says Larry Augustin, chairman of VA Software Corporation, which is based in Fremont, Calif. ''Linux is the next generation of UNIX and the old versions will fade away.''

Will they fade away?

It seems that old operating systems never die, though they do become encumbered with labels such as 'legacy'. Compaq still supports OpenVMS, after all. A multitude of businesses remain on Windows NT 4.0 despite the fact that Windows 2000 has been out for four years and Microsoft is about to eliminate support for NT. You even find a DOS application running here and there.

So UNIX has been around for a few decades and it's likely that it will be around to some degree for a while longer. But will it be as an active, robust and broadly commercially supported operating system? Or will it become a fringe system like Atari, where aficionados still meet and talk about how great it used to be?

Among the Faithful

If you talk to the core Linux developers and experts, there is no doubt that Linux will take over. Linux creator Linus Torvalds, for example, compares what is happening with software now to what occurred in the hardware marketplace a few years ago.

''The PC became a force in the market because you had standard hardware that you made small incremental changes on, and that made it very cost effective,'' says Torvalds. ''Following that same pattern -- standardizing on infrastructure and then building on top of that -- open source will take over the whole industry.''

As the Linux operating system has demonstrated its reliability, more companies are willing to adopt it for key enterprise functions. Computer Associates Linux Enterprise Manager Sam Greenblatt says 61 percent of the enterprise market has moderate to strong interest in Linux, and not because they expected something free.

''In our surveys, total cost of ownership was the last item they had in mind. Reliability was first,'' he says. ''Eighty percent of the biggest firms on Wall Street have Linux as a core OS.''

As familiarity with Linux has grown, Augustin notes it is getting much easier to get customers to adopt Linux than it was a few years ago.

''Most have some experience with it in their enterprises so we are no longer having to justify it or evangelize it,'' says Augustin. ''We are not pushing any more. We are being pulled in by the customer.''

Not surprisingly, many with UNIX skills are transferring their experience over to Linux.

Jon Hall, president of Linux International, was a UNIX man for two decades at companies like Compaq Computer Corp. and Bell Laboratories before switching to Linux. In his view, UNIX is a dead end.

''It doesn't make sense to be developing your own proprietary UNIX OS these days,'' he says.

By The Numbers

While such statements are about what you would expect from the Linux faithful, how do they measure up with reality?

At least to a degree, these statements are correct. Linux has certainly transitioned into the mainstream of IT. All the major UNIX vendors -- including IBM, Hewlett-Packard Company, Compaq and Sun Microsystems, Inc. -- now include Linux as well in their enterprise offerings.

''Each vendor seems to have a strategy for Linux to bring it in on top of the existing UNIX base,'' says Torvalds. ''They appear to be offering a Unix support environment today and at the same time giving customers a path to move to Linux.''

The general trend is toward downplaying the operating system and focusing on other aspects of providing service to customers.

''The real value added is not in the operating system, the compilers or the graphics, it is in the integration and higher-level things,'' explains Torvalds. ''Essentially, we are taking the OS out of the equation and focusing on the customer's needs.''

But does this mean that UNIX will disappear?

Not quite yet, at least.

However, a low and steady decline is evident and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. According to IDC, an analyst firm based in Framingham, Mass., the number of paid UNIX server systems shipped has been slowly declining every year for most of the past decade. The number of Linux server systems shipped, meanwhile, has steadily grown during the same time period. Linux also accounted for 26 percent of all server shipments in 2002, with roughly twice as many units as UNIX.

Looking ahead, IDC projects that the number of UNIX shipments will stay fairly steady through 2006, while Linux continues to grow. IDC analysts say Linux is not so much replacing the older OS, but it may be stealing UNIX's opportunities for growth.

So, put away the flowers and your black suit. Perhaps over the next decade UNIX will gradually pass away. But it is not going to happen any time soon. Organizations have too much invested in their enterprise systems and trained staff to go ripping them out. Linux has some cost advantage over UNIX, but perhaps not enough to justify making a complete change.

Over time, as IT managers upgrade their servers, databases and applications, many will opt to put them on Linux. But it will be other reasons, not just the operating system, that will motivate those changes.

In the meantime, we will see those two operating systems operating side by side.

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