With or Without the RISC

Shane Robison, chief strategy and technology officer, Hewlett-Packard Co.

What is HP's Unix strategy in light of the company's decision to drop PA-RISC? Unix is a very important part of our operating system and operating environment strategy. In the foreseeable future, I don't see a big change. We've got an operating system strategy which we've been pretty consistent on, which is Unix with HP-UX, Linux, and NT and all the Microsoft environments. In addition to that, we've got some specialty operating systems like NSK [NonStop Kernel] and OpenVMS and others, which we will continue to support for a number of years as we port those to Itanium.

But our Unix business is really robust. And the way we see this Linux/Unix/NT battle playing out is everybody wins.

We are consolidating to microprocessor platforms around IA-32 and IPF [the Itanium processor family]. And we are porting all of our operating systems to IPF. In fact, HP-UX is up and running now on IPF.

Shane Robison, chief strategy and technology officer at Hewlett-Packard Co.
Shane Robison, chief strategy and technology officer at Hewlett-Packard Co.
How do you expect that business to pan out? Is HP-UX on Itanium going to be a strategic system for HP for the long term? Absolutely. I believe it will be the operating system we're using to set a lot of the new benchmarks. That's all running on our Superdome platform with the Itanium processor in it.

So it's absolutely not the case that the move away from PA-RISC means moving away from HP-UX. It is absolutely not the case -- you're right. If you think about the customers that are on HP-UX and the applications they're running, these are probably the most sophisticated enterprise environments in the world. You don't switch platforms -- it's really hard.

There is certainly a perception among users we've talked to that RISC and Unix go together and that distancing yourself from RISC naturally means a distancing from Unix. Are you fighting any such perception or confidence issue among your HP-UX users? We were worried about it in the beginning. We went out and worked very carefully with our big enterprise customers.

The nice thing about the Unix space is the customers are really big: You know who they are; you can go sit down and have a conversation with them. We've literally lost, I think, one or two to a different platform, and they were people who were looking to move for other reasons. Even those have gone to Linux or NT.

The trick has been not so much us, but the ISV [independent software vendor] community porting to Itanium. If you get applications ported over, then you're in great shape.

What sort of a curve do you see for the HP-UX market? Upward, downward or remaining flat? That's getting into what's happening in the Unix market overall. We see it as sort of flattish. But it's not a function of Unix. If you look at what's happening in the IT environment, it has been a little slow. If you look at our Unix business, we've done pretty well, relative to the market.

But will the HP-UX market curve be upward, downward or flat? What I would expect it to do is a little better than the market.

I'm trying to get you to answer the question specifically. I know what you're trying to get me to do, and you can see I'm not going to do it.

What do you think the Unix market overall is going to do? I think it's a little hard to tell, but I think the Unix market is stronger than people realize because it's such an important part of all the major enterprise environments. People have got all their mission-critical business applications running on Unix platforms. That's not something you change quickly.

So you are unwilling to project where the Unix market as a whole is heading. I don't have a crystal ball on the Unix market as a whole, so I don't know. And I don't think anybody else does, either. I think it's a mistake to underestimate the potential of a good Unix offering.

Would it be fair to characterize Unix as a casualty of the RISC-Intel war that Intel Corp. won? No. One of the things to keep in mind is the economics of what's happening here. This is as much about economics as it is about speeds and feeds. What you're seeing is a consolidation in this industry, where you can no longer afford the investment required to support the entire ecosystem around a proprietary microprocessor architecture. So what we're moving to are more industry-standard platforms, where you get the economies of scale of having a partner like Intel provide a platform to the industry.

But whether it's speeds and feeds or economics, Intel still wins over RISC, right? I think you're looking for a battle here that doesn't exist. What we were really looking for was a lower-cost platform that was even higher in technology than what we had before.

What's your response to someone who says Unix is becoming a legacy system? I don't see that. We're adding features and enhancing Unix and doing all kinds of new things to move the ball forward. I think the Unix market [will be] around for longer than people believe. There are a lot of the big business applications and the whole supporting environment in the high-end space, and I don't see CIOs switching off that.

At the very high end in the supercomputing space, Linux is something that's really proliferating. Because the customers there -- the national labs and universities -- have armies of programmers who can support Linux. They don't have the same kind of business stability and service-level agreement requirements that some of our big enterprise customers do. At the high end of the business application space with the enterprise customers, Unix is still very strong. At the lower end -- application servers and name servers and all the smaller platforms -- Linux is really going great guns.

Will there come a point where there's no reason to run Unix because Linux will do everything Unix does for a lot lower price? You could ask that same question about NT.

I could ask the same question about anything, but let's deal with this one. At some point, but not anytime soon. That's a controversial statement. The Linux guys have made a lot of progress in the last couple years, and they're moving into certain parts of the enterprise. But in a lot of the mission-critical stuff, it's still a Unix world. Linux is an operating system that is positioned very well in certain market segments. The same is true with HP-UX. What our strategy has been is to make all three of these operating environments interoperate -- Linux, Unix and NT.

Do you think Sun Microsystems, which is so dependent on Unix, has a viable long-term business model? Sun's got two problems. They've got a very expensive hardware platform that they've got to get out from under. And they've got a crisis of confidence in their customers around whether they're going to be a viable company. So Solaris is losing market share to the other big Unixes and to Linux on x86, where the ROI is better.

What do you make of what The SCO Group Inc. is doing, and how do you expect it to affect the Unix market and Unix users? It's caused a lot of noise. It's not clear to me until all the [intellectual property] stuff sorts out whether they are going to have any impact. This is far from over.

Are any of your Unix users asking you for reassurances that SCO won't be going after you next? Not really. We have a pretty good relationship with SCO, so we haven't had the kinds of issues that some of the other guys have. For us, it hasn't been an issue.

Greg Papadopoulos, CTO at Sun Microsystems Inc.
Greg Papadopoulos, CTO at Sun Microsystems Inc.
Greg Papadopoulos, chief technology officer, Sun Microsystems Inc.

HP decided that being in the microprocessor business wouldn't be economically feasible in the long term. Why is it economically feasible for Sun in the long term? Because I don't make the chips. It's a fabless model; I design the chips. The question is, Is there value that you get out of being able to control microprocessor design? So far, we've proven yes, there's tremendous value. In fact, as we go forward, the case gets stronger because the nature of what you want to do on processors on the server side is really changing. We're building, essentially, entire servers on chips.

HP made a decision that they did not have sufficient volume in their processors to justify them continuing to design and manufacture their own processors. So they decided to get out of the semiconductor business and get out of the processor design business, teach Intel what they knew about processor design and go create Itanium. Itanium is sort of a zero-volume processor right now, so the economics of that is a disaster. I don't understand how that is somehow a more viable economic model than what we do.

The traditional argument is that going with the Intel architecture offers economies of scale that you can't match. Let's talk about the operating systems and then talk about processors. At the programming level, there's no difference between Linux and Unix -- Linux is a clone of Unix. At the level where programmers are concerned, they're essentially identical. At the implementation level, they're quite different -- Linux being built more in the Berkeley style of kernel, and Solaris following more of the second-generation AT&T kernel design. Linux is very well tuned for Intel processors, so it's a good performance equation there. What a lot of people have been after is getting access to very effective 32-bit computing technology from Intel. Where Intel certainly made their mark in the server space has been with Xeon, being able to do one-, two- and emerging four-way systems at very high performance and very good prices. The frenzy with Linux has been about really getting access to doing 32-bit computing with Intel technology on something other than Microsoft operating environments. You can get access to that with Solaris on x86, too.

Sun has already done a lot of work to port Solaris to Itanium. Was all of that work done in vain? What's happened is that as we've moved forward to the new software with Itanium and UltraSparc 5, we all started these things before we even understood anything about Web applications, let alone Web services. So they were designed in an environment of, "How do I run a single job fast?" And that's not what we want. The Itanium is off in a corner of the computing space where I don't think the volume server is going to be. We've gone back and said it's going to be far more important to support 32-bit.

Can you foresee any scenario in which those Solaris-on-Itanium efforts would resume? Yeah, I could see that if Itanium starts to build some substantial volume in the market. It hasn't proven to do that. I don't have anything against it. From an engineering point of view, it's real bravado on Intel's part -- they're doing a very complex design. But I just don't think that's the center of what the applications need.

It's pretty clear that there's an ongoing debate within Sun about how aggressive you should be in adopting Linux as more of a core part of your operating system strategy. Can you give me a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how that debate is going? The debate is around how much longer people are going to persist in focusing on operating systems. It's not where people are writing applications. If you go into an enterprise, if developers are writing an application to an operating system, you really have to question what they're doing. Because most new applications are being written at the next layer up -- they're written as server pages, as directory entries, as database tables, as JavaBeans. If you're writing C and C++ applications still, you're doing something old or something that's very special. But it's not where the mainstream development is, because it's simply not productive enough. In that context, we view Linux and Solaris and Intel architecture and Sparc architecture as all components and choices. You use the best component for the job at the time. Honestly, I don't care. It's not important.

Is there anything to keep Linux from developing into a head-to-head competitor against Solaris? I think Linux is an alternative to Solaris today, and I don't view it as head-to-head competition.

No, the question is whether there's anything to keep it from developing into that in the future. As an operating system kernel, it's a component choice. The question is really about how this evolves to the next layer, and, of course, we think that's all around Java.

What are the prospects for Sun to adopt a Linux-on-Sparc strategy? It doesn't make a lot of sense right now because Linux is a binary architecture. It's exactly the same [reason] why Linux on Itanium doesn't make sense, because the volume is around the 32-bit binaries.

For the Unix market as a whole, do you see the curve going up, going down or staying flat? I'm not one who looks at the whole market -- I look at our piece of the market. We are blending Unix and Linux systems, and I think that total market grows for us.

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