The End of Unix?

Unix fans have been on the ropes of late. SGI declared bankruptcy last week. Last month, ongoing financial problems at Sun Microsystems led to an executive shake-up. It's not surprising to see the two highest-profile Unix-identified vendors in trouble. Things are not looking that bright for Unix anywhere.

Although a few folks at Microsoft might think they've had a hand in Sun's and SGI's misfortunes, they'd be wrong. Linux is the culprit. As in some Greek myth, Linux, the unwanted child of Unix, is putting Unix vendors to death.

A look at the Top500 list of supercomputers tells the tale best. In 1998, Unix machines from Sun and SGI combined for 46% of the 500 fastest computers in the world. Linux accounted for one (0.2%). In 2005, Sun had 0.8% -- or four systems -- and SGI had 3.6%, while 72% of the Top500 ran Linux. IBM saw its prominence rise to the point where its systems represented 44% of that prestigious list in 2005, up from 21% in 1998, all because of its investment in high-end Linux systems.

Linux's success in high-end, scientific and technical computing, like Unix's before it, preceded its success in your data center. Once Linux proved itself by executing the most complex calculations possible, IT managers quickly grasped that it could easily serve Web pages and run payroll. Naturally, it helps to be lucky: Free, downloadable Linux's star began to rise during one of the longest downturns in IT history. With companies doing more with less, one thing they could dump was Unix.

Sort of. Linux, after all, is Unix, but without a closed licensing agreement. Unix, once the byword for "open systems," has become a synonym for "proprietary." Compared with Windows, of course, Unix remains an "open" platform. Compared with Linux, whose source code has been available to everyone from the get-go, Unix looks closed and proprietary.

The problem for Sun and, to a lesser extent, SGI is that for too long, they competed against a brain trust in Redmond, Wash., and not the global brain trust that was creating Linux. Therefore, they weren't prepared for how quickly it undercut their business. Linux has forced both SGI and Sun to adopt a "we do Linux better" strategy. The word Unix is never uttered.

IT shops with big Unix operations need not worry. Linux, as most of you already know, can be complementary to or a fine replacement for Unix. Staff skills translate over immediately. Applications that were written to take advantage of, say, cool Solaris-only facilities will be an issue, but not an unresolvable one. Access to packaged software is far better with Linux than Unix.

I don't intend for this to be an obituary for Sun and SGI. Both companies can come roaring back. This industry has more comeback stories than Hollywood; look at IBM and Apple. But I do think we are seeing the passing of vendor-specific Unix.

Ironically, Sun and SGI have developed and backed many industry standards and used a lot of open-source technologies in their products, creating an intellectual climate among their in-house engineers that has fostered sharing with the software community. And if you look to see who's contributing code to various open-source projects, you'll find many programmers who work at SGI, Sun, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and others. They may make their living at companies that depend on Unix, but they work to further the goals of open-source, of which the primary beneficiary is Linux, the killer of Unix. Yes, there's something of a Greek myth in this story.

Mark Hall is a Computerworld editor at large. Contact him at mark_hall@computerworld.com.

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