Vital Signs for Unix

A critical review of five commercial Unix variants identifies the weak and the strong

Unix is one of the IT world's few living legends. It has been in continuous use since its birth in 1969 and its storied past is like that of a nation: Inept rulers brought it to the brink of ruin, a dictator was deposed by a public rebellion, coalitions were made and dissolved, party loyalists inflamed passions by defecting to the other side, and for a time, anarchy reigned. For corporations, Unix's journey through adolescence was anything but fun.

Corporate users rode out Unix's growing pains, in part by ignoring vendor pleas to install every new upgrade. Unix is no fire-and-forget endeavor. It takes months to tweak a Unix server for optimal performance and stability. But once you find that elusive combination of hardware, operating system version and patches, you leave it alone. Unix has endured because, when it's tuned, a Unix box is a magnificent beast. It seems able to shoulder any load, and it will run and run until something melts.

Our snapshots look at five commercial Unix variants, giving you an idea of where each is and where each is headed. We looked at how well the variants work with a set of 10 corporate applications: Oracle Corp.'s 8i database; IBM's WebSphere Application Server; Adobe Systems Inc.'s FrameMaker 6; iPlanet Enterprise Web Server; Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer; Sybase Inc.'s Adaptive Server Enterprise database system; Lotus Software Group 's Domino; Sun Microsystems Inc.'s ChiliSoft Active Server Pages; Vitria Technology Inc.'s BusinessWare; and SAP AG's enterprise applications. The application score shows how many of the sets each operating system supports.

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Bleak Outlook for SCO UnixWare

Another flavor of Unix -- SCO UnixWare -- was acquired in May by Orem, Utah-based Caldera International Inc. from the former Santa Cruz Operation Inc. (SCO). That makes Caldera the new owner of the keys to the kingdom: the source code for Unix System V.

UnixWare has been the most powerful and complete PC Unix, but it doesn't support high-profile back-office applications. And it's been trounced in the market by free Linux (as well as Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris x86, priced at $75).

Framingham, Mass.-based research firm IDC concludes that Sun will remain the leading Unix server operating system vendor and that the SCO/Caldera product line "will continue to see a shrinking share of the market."

-- Mitch Betts and Tom Yager

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Finally, we gave each variant an overall "condition" rating to illustrate how healthy each is for work in the enterprise. The rating depicts each variant's outlook, based on the pace of new development, software portability, market position and quality of documentation and support.

SGI Irix

Condition: Critical

Release: Irix 6.5 from Silicon Graphics Inc. in Mountain View, Calif.

Platform: SGI MIPS servers and workstations

Standard: Unix 95

Application score: 2 out of 10

Advantages: Irix scales to 512 CPUs and 1TB of RAM; it leverages astounding server I/O performance. Irix on SGI owns the high-end visualization and digital media markets.

Disadvantages: Slow Mips CPUs and aborted PC efforts have hurt SGI's bottom line; SGI's shift toward Linux and Windows belies a stated commitment to MIPS/Irix; compatibility and tools problems hamper commercial development.

Prognosis: SGI can't win. The company tried to distance itself from sluggish Mips processors and its quirky Irix operating system by shifting toward Intel PCs, Windows and Linux. That brought cries of abandonment from SGI's existing Irix customers and forced the company to promise new Irix platforms through 2006.

SGI has a rare gift for building ultrafast server I/O subsystems. This serves SGI's data-intensive traditional markets (film and TV animation, medical and scientific visualization, and high-end digital media) well, but that niche is too small to sustain the company.

The way we see it, there's no real hope: Irix is a goner. Hopefully, its user base will support future servers based on Linux and other operating systems. If not, we hope Irix doesn't take SGI down with it.

IBM AIX

Condition: Good

Release: AIX 5L

Platform: IBM RS/6000 and other selected systems running IBM Power and PowerPC series processors; Intel IA-64 edition planned.

Standard: Unix 98

Application score: 9 out of 10

Advantages: IBM 64-bit Power/PowerPC CPUs are solid performers at deceptively low clock speeds; one operating system covers the entire RS/6000 product line; Linux source code portability is a standard option; IBM's Visual Age Java and C/C++ tools and developer-friendly policies encourage development.

Disadvantages: IBM's manuals and support documents are often inscrutable; plans for enterprise IA-64 and Linux systems raise concerns that IBM may scale back RS/6000 and AIX.

Prognosis: AIX 5L, code-named Project Monterey, borrows pieces from several Unix implementations to create a versatile, broadly compatible operating environment. IBM is hedging its bets, blessing Linux as its platform-unifying operating system and promising to build AIX for Intel's 64-bit CPU architecture. That has raised doubts about IBM's commitment to AIX and RS/6000, but AIX users shouldn't fret. It'll be a long time before Linux or Intel can measure up to IBM's current enterprise Unix offerings.

IBM has always taken on lots of partners, but the company rarely alters its strategy to please them. Therefore, we believe AIX is here to stay, and we're glad IBM is offering users an alternative to AIX on what has been a locked-down platform.

Compaq Tru64 Unix

Condition: Fair

Release: Tru64 Unix 5.1 from Compaq Computer Corp.

Platform: Compaq Alpha workstations and servers

Standard: Unix 95

Application score: 4 out of 10

Advantages: Tru64 uses the powerful, lightweight Carnegie-Mellon Mach kernel; the 64-bit Alpha CPU is the best available for small and midsize servers; this continues Digital Equipment's legacy of creating powerful, affordable server systems.

Disadvantages: Compaq lacks experience and credibility outside the Intel server market; Linux is very popular among Alpha users; holes in System V compatibility make application porting difficult.

Prognosis: Of the many gems acquired in Compaq's purchase of Digital Equipment, few shine as brightly as the Alpha CPU. Alpha routinely tops Warrenton, Va.-based Standard Performance Evaluation Corp.'s benchmarks as the fastest CPU at a given clock speed.

Compaq changed Digital Unix's name to Tru64 Unix to highlight the Alpha chip's 64-bit pedigree. Now Compaq has to earn the trust of the large-scale server market.

Unfortunately, Compaq's PC credentials do it more harm than good. Likewise, Linux and the mature OpenVMS may win more enterprise accounts than the fairly proprietary Tru64. Intel will undoubtedly pressure Compaq to prefer IA-64 chips over Alpha.

Tru64 Unix on Alpha leads the pack in raw performance, but we suggest you wait to see what Compaq does with Alpha after IA-64 debuts. Moreover, the pending merger with Hewlett-Packard Co. raises new uncertainties for the future of Tru64 Unix.

HP-UX

Condition: Good

Release: HP-UX 11i

Platform: HP 9000 servers

Standard: Unix 95

Application score: 9 out of 10

Advantages: HP has a solid reputation for reliability and service; HP-UX comes with a substantial operating system bundle including a Web server, C, C++, Windows networking, Wireless Application Protocol services and Linux APIs

Disadvantages: HP PA-RISC architecture is falling behind in performance relative to the competition.

Prognosis: HP is the Volvo of IT: It quietly churns out ugly, bulletproof boxes that virtually care for themselves. HP is rarely the first or the fastest, but it packs enormous value into its Unix products.

Not surprisingly, HP-UX is almost Linux-like in its completeness, with time-proven enterprise tools and services included in the bundle.

HP's inclusion of the Veritas journaling file system moves HP-UX 11i to the front of the pack. Once HP catches up to its rivals' performance and certifies HP-UX as Unix 98-compliant, it could move ahead of Sun and IBM.

Sun Solaris

Condition: Good

Current release: Solaris 8

Platform: Sun SPARC and Intel PC workstations and servers

Standard: Unix 98

Application score: 10 out of 10

Advantages: Brilliant, aggressive marketing made Solaris the de facto Unix; the SPARC and Intel versions are the same operating system; Solaris has the broadest application support of any commercial Unix-based environment.

Disadvantages: SPARC processors don't scale as efficiently as Sun rivals' do; large-scale Sun systems are notoriously expensive; Solaris ships with an anemic standard software bundle with costly options.

Prognosis: Tough marketing and driven development catapulted Sun to first place, a position the company jealously protects. Simply put, Solaris leads because Sun makes sure that everything runs on Solaris.

Price and performance combine to form Sun's Achilles' heel and the door through which IBM and HP gain access to corporate accounts. Sun customers benefit from a huge and well-trained workforce, the company's crack consulting staff, and a quick resolution of Solaris bugs. These advantages, along with Sun's ownership of Java and its involvement in iPlanet, make Sun the safest choice in enterprise Unix systems.

Yager is technical director at InfoWorld's Test Center.

This story, "Vital Signs for Unix" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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