Intel's forthcoming line of 64bit processors could usher in an era when Unix vendors can no longer rely on selling their expensive hardware. Customers that want to use applications written for their operating systems (OSs) will hesitate, because that software will be able to run on any Intel server.
In theory, that is. In practice, the Unix market will not be opened up to that extent. Most vendors will hold on to their proprietary platforms.
Today, if you want to run an application written for AIX, IBM's version of Unix, you will need an RS/6000. But Monterey, IBM's next-generation Unix OS, which is to be released as AIX 5L, will run on any IA-64 machine. It is a move that exposes IBM's RS/6000 business to aggressive rivals such as Dell.
IBM may have reasoned that this potential loss of revenue is more than compensated for by the increased market for selling its software and services that widespread adoption of AIX would bring. But Hewlett Packard (HP), which has also ported its HP-UX Unix OS to IA-64, has stopped short of planning a shrink-wrapped HP-UX to run on any vendor's IA-64 machine.
Although Compaq will manufacture IA-64 servers, it will not port Tru64, its own flavour of Unix, to IA-64, at least in the short term. Sun Microsystems has claimed that Solaris, its version of Unix, is "IA-64 ready", but its relationship with Intel is strained, to say the least. Sun will not be manufacturing Intel-based servers.
Miles Barel, AIX programme director at IBM, was reluctant to predict whether the link between a vendor's OS and its hardware would be severed by Itanium and its offspring.
"I cannot speak for other vendors. All I can say is that we have tremendous technology built into our servers that affect things such as scalability and availability. At the same time, we are making sure that AIX will run across all [hardware] platforms," he said.
Alan Priestly, strategic marketing manager of the enterprise server group at Intel, said: "Vendors have enjoyed selling highly-priced tin into that sector. For commercial reasons, many of them will continue with their own architectures to protect their customer base."
But he said the size of Intel's chip manufacturing resources mean that IA-64 systems will cost a lot less than those from vendors having to shoulder the expense of maintaining their own chip technology. HP and SGI have publicly announced their intention to abandon their own chips, while IBM and Compaq will run theirs alongside Intel. Sun is the only Unix vendor prepared to go it alone.
John Young, business partner manager at HP, said Sun will not be able to hold out much longer. "Sun will have to make the leap to IA-64," he said. Sun's Sparc processor is running out of steam and will cost the vendor too much to keep developing, he claimed.
But Russ Castronovo, a representative at Sun, said: "That is a nice argument. It is probably wishful thinking by HP. It would like us to do as much damage to our customer base as it has."
Sparc is not running out of steam, and because Sun does not have its own chip fabrication plant and only pays for development, its cost are lower, he said. Also, because IA-64 will not be volume products for Intel, prices will be comparable with Sparc.
Sun will always create a Sparc
Castronovo argued that customers know hardware prices are only a tiny proportion of the total cost of buying a Unix system. "Most of the money goes into fine-tuning the software stack," he said.
Every time a new IA-64 chip comes out, software is going to have to be recompiled, he said. "Customers do not want to be locked into that treadmill."
He added that because so many of the features that sell high-end Unix systems rely on tight integration between hardware and OS, proprietary Unix OSs will always remain stuck to a corresponding hardware platform.
"In certain markets, Solaris on Intel will be the right solution," he said. But it is not clear when Solaris on IA-64 will appear - Sun and Intel have accused each other of dragging their feet.
"Sun is committed, but it takes two to tango. Siemens and NCR, for example, want to address the enterprise and web server market with Solaris on IA-64. But Intel is giving different levels of support to vendors that use OSs that it likes," said Castronovo.
He also hinted that Intel has not given Sun access to enough Itanium chips for the vendor to test. "We've run all the simulations we can," he said.
But IA-64 is not just for Unix. The roll-out of Windows 2000 Datacenter machines will start this year, and if IA-64 is to shake up the Unix market at all, perhaps it will do it by pushing Microsoft up there.
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