RealTime IT News

Unix Still (Kind of) Holding Its Own

The operating system that powers the lion's share of servers is losing ground to Windows and Linux. Unix is losing so much ground that IT research firm IDC is predicting Windows will take over as the dominant server operating system by the year 2008.

IDC's upcoming "Worldwide Server Customer Revenue, 2004 vs. 2008, by Operating System" predicts a flat growth rate for Unix servers shipped through 2008. The total server market for 2008 is only expected to reach $60.9 billion.

Unix servers account for $4.2 billion of total sales in a server market that reached $11.5 billion in the second quarter of 2004. They should end the year with 39.6 percent market share of a $53.3 billion server market. Windows makes up the second largest percentage of server operating systems with 32.2 percent market share.

Linux owns 8.4 percent market share behind IBM's mainframe OS/390, which owns 10.6 percent. That is expected to change in the next four years, though. IDC expects Windows to command a 38.4 percent market share over Unix systems, which is at 31.9 percent. IDC also predicts that Linux will jump to third place with 14.9 percent market share.

Holding Its Own, Kind Of

Despite losing its lead to Windows, Unix is still very much relevant, Jean Bozman, research vice president at IDC, told internetnews.com.

"If you took all of the Unix servers and turned them off, everything would grind to a halt quickly," Bozman said. "If you look at many companies today, there is not only one mainframe, there are several and nearly all of them are running some version of Unix. But over time what you will find is that Windows and Linux will become more reliable."

Bozman said the trend down in Unix is a little misleading because Unix did not suffer the same crash in usage as did the other two operating systems when worldwide server revenue peaked in 2000.

"In the old days, if you were going to run a data center, you were going to run only a few mainframe computers and your typical operating system for mission critical system is 20 years old," she said. "Now, more companies are using combinations of different servers. If computers needed to be replaced, some companies are looking at volume servers running Linux or Windows in clusters."

But recent developments in the sector have reinforced the belief that Unix is going the way of the dinosaur.

IBM's decision to reassign internal development from AIX to Linux raised a few eyebrows. The decision shows in IBM's latest Blade server , which was only released as a Linux offering. HP has also been reserving its HP-UX for only a select number of its hardware offerings and favors Microsoft Windows and Linux for its volume servers.

Sun Microsystems remains the most visible and active of the three vendors with its Solaris variant. Sun's focus is on volume servers, especially x86 ones running Solaris. The latest version of Solaris hit the streets Monday.

Bozman said some of the rankling among the vendors is classic marketing one-upmanship, but there are signs of rapid growth in the younger operating systems.

"With the introduction of the Linux 2.6 operating system, we expect to see Linux servers grow beyond their initial role as a foundation for IT infrastructure and Web-centric workloads, becoming a mainstream platform for enterprise IT servers," Bozman said.

Unix still has a lot of potential for development, Bozman said, especially with blade servers, which she suggests would be perfect for telcos and other government and financial services verticals.

Other vendors like SGI continue to thrive off their Unix platforms but more and more for niche environments like CAD design and military simulations.

Unix-compatible implementations, such as FreeBSD and NetBSD, are seeing further development, as is Apple Computer with its OS X operating system. Even the polarizing SCO Group has held on tight to its version of Unix and has signaled it may return to developing its variant in earnest one day.

Ultimately, Bozman suggests the major Unix vendors don't see Linux or Windows as something that will entirely replace Unix. All three operating systems have their place, depending on an analysis of workloads taken in the context of price vs. performance.

Price Always An Issue

In the final analysis, it may very well boil down to a price issue.

Comparing prices for Unix, Windows and Linux has been a very hot button issue of late. But the general consensus is that choosing Microsoft technologies for your Web platform will cost you money both up front and in the future.

For starters, the operating system, Web server and development tools will have initial licensing fees as well as ongoing upgrade and support costs.

Upfront costs for Linux can be as low as free with an option to purchase ongoing support from third-party vendors (e.g. Red Hat Linux) should you require more formal support. Costs in this category primarily rest in keeping a talented and up-to-date staff "in the know" with the current and next evolution of these technologies.

Unix has run under both pricing structures as individual vendors have traditionally charged upfront costs, because the servers are pre-loaded with their proprietary operating system. The hardware is also often sold with extensive service-level contracts. Many of the variants like Solaris allow for free access to the source code, but charge as much as six-figure prices for compatibility testing.

Sun and others have been shaking up the Unix pricing models by offering "per-user per-year" or "pay-by-the-sip" pricing structures instead of per-gigabit or per-CPU.

But anyway you slice it, Windows and Linux are gaining in market share.

According to IDC's latest stats, Microsoft Windows servers, based on x86 server hardware, showed strong growth in the second quarter, as unit shipments grew 25.3 percent year over year.

Linux servers posted their eighth consecutive quarter of double-digit growth. It is also the third consecutive quarter in which Linux servers have posted more than $900 million in worldwide factory revenue, nearing the $1 billion mark in quarterly revenue.

Compare that to the Unix server market, which showed renewed growth in the quarter, with shipments increasing by 20.2 percent year over year and factory revenue gaining 1.8 percent sequentially. IDC is expected to release its third-quarter results later this month.