As Unix fades away from data centers, it's unclear what's next

Linux is gaining ground today, but a cloud OS or some other new technology may become more important in time

LAS VEGAS -- Gartner says that its clients have started planning to migrate from Unix.

For some of them, it may take two or three years, and for others, five years. A few may still be running Unix 10 years from now, but nonetheless, Gartner believes the operating system is on a path to insignificance.

But predicting the end of something means having to show some insight into the future -- and identifying the operating system or other technology that will replace Unix in the data center. It is here that Gartner analysts, and its clients for that matter, struggle.

The obvious replacements to HP-UX, Solaris, AIX and other Unix variants today are Linux, Windows and mainframe operating systems. But that conclusion assumes that the tech world will continue as it is now.

"What constitutes the OS of the future?" asked George Weiss, a Gartner analyst at the firm's Data Center Conference here this week.

The OpenStack cloud computing platform, the Hadoop big data framework, and emerging cloud operating systems are increasingly the direction for data centers building massively scalable, big data cloud environments, he predicts. "Can you see a Unix role in those environments?" he said.

An IT manager at major financial services company, who asked that his name and company not be disclosed, said he doesn't expect his firm to abandon Unix any time soon. The operating system runs many of the company's core mission critical systems.

"A 10-year exit strategy off Unix is probably more realistic," he said. "There is not a huge panic to get off what we're using."

But the IT manager did agree that the entire data center architecture could see a major shift in the coming years. "The whole cloud OS is going to shake everything up," he said.

Unix revenue has clearly been shrinking for more than a decade. According to IDC, worldwide Unix revenue in 2012 was $8.5 billion, or 22.8% less than the year earlier total of $11.1 billion.

In the just reported third quarter of this year, IDC says that Unix server revenue of $1.3 billion was 31% less than the year-earlier total, making the latest period total "the lowest quarterly Unix server revenue ever reported by IDC."

Matt Eastwood, an IDC analyst, said the Unix market is feeling pressure for two primary reasons.

First, data centers continue moving workloads such as business applications, online processing transaction systems, data warehousing and analytics tox86 servers running Linux. "This is primarily being done to lower costs and introduce more standardization into data centers worldwide," he said.

The second driver encouraging a shift from Unix are spending constraints. "Weak economic conditions accelerate the trend towards 'good enough' computing and low cost tends to win out over somewhat more expensive platforms that would have won the business during good economic times," said Eastwood.

The state of California supports every variant of Unix, along with most other systems, said Ron Hughes, chief deputy state CIO of the state's Dept. of Technology, who spoke at the conference. As long as his customers want Unix support, Hughes said his operation will provide it.

Looking at a longer term, though, Hughes notes that the biggest customer demands are for open systems. Users are also interested in engineered systems such as Oracle's Exadata appliance. Mainframe training is also in demand.

Georgia State University began migrating its ERP and other mission critical systems from Solaris-based servers to Linux after Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems in 2009. The move was prompted by the ending of deep discounts available to educational institutions after the acquisition closed, said Keith Campbell, director of technology engineering at the university.

The university's Linux migration "was probably going to happen anyway because the bottom line is that the commodity x86 hardware was getting to where it could do the job," said Campbell. The decision was also aided by the fact that VMware virtualization tools were getting "more and more attractive," he said.

The university still runs Solaris to support some older applications that aren't being upgraded. Those will probably get replaced over the next year, said Campbell.

The university also runs some IBM AIX systems because of the capabilities of the vendor's Power 7 chip, which "for the right types of research are a very good fit," said Campbell.

Does he miss Solaris? "At the end of the day I've been through a lot of OS migrations, and there's always little things you miss, but there's not a huge difference between Red Hat and Unix," said Campbell.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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