Question marks were raised over the future of Hewlett Packard's (HP) Unix variant last week when it announced it was positioning Linux as its third strategic platform alongside HP/UX and Microsoft's Windows 2000.
The move follows the decision by industry heavyweights such as IBM and Dell to back the open source operating system (OS). IBM plans to support the offering across its entire hardware family, for example, while Dell has committed to spend $750 million on Linux research and development during this year alone.
HP, on the other hand, has said it will now support Caldera, SuSE, TurboLinux and Debian Linux on its NetServer PC boxes in addition to Red Hat Linux. Red Hat, Caldera, SuSE and TurboLinux will also be certified to run on its business desktop PC families, including Vectras and Brios.
More significantly, however, the vendor plans to port Linux to its 64bit PA-Risc chip, which forms the basis of its Unix server line, and is developing a Linux runtime environment that will enable Linux applications (binary code) to run on its HP/UX Unix variant.
This, it says, will mean that developers no longer need to recompile their Linux packages if they want to build them on an HP/UX box before deploying them on a Linux-based one.
But it is unclear where this will leave HP/UX into the future. HP currently licenses the SVR5 Unix source code, which forms the basis of HP/UX, from the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO). SCO, however, is in the process of selling its Unix business to Linux distributor, Caldera. And the move inevitably raises question marks over what will happen to both SVR5 and SCO's UnixWare derivative offering.
Caldera has said that it intends to layer Linux services over the UnixWare kernel and will add Linux application programming interfaces (API) to the OS. This means that, to all intents and purposes, UnixWare will appear as Linux to users and administrators.
It also means that developers will be able to write applications that can run on both Linux proper, which will be targeted at the low end of the market, and the new manifestation of UnixWare, which will be sold at the high end.
But it is unclear how this move will affect future development of SVR5, and ultimately the original equipment manufacturers that license it.
Project Trillian enters the equation
To make matters even more complex, HP is also a member of Project Trillian, which is developing a 64bit version of Linux. This is due to be released at the same time as Intel's 64bit Itanium chip - which was, coincidentally, jointly developed with HP - later this year.
Version 11.20 of HP/UX is also scheduled to run on IA64, although HP is unlikely to base its servers on 64bit Intel chips until the release of the second generation McKinley processor in 2001. The latest commercially available release of HP/UX is 11.i.
At the moment, however, it is unclear whether HP is adding the Linux runtime environment and API to 64bit HP/UX to enable more applications to run on it, so prolonging its life, or whether it, like Caldera, eventually intends to convert the OS into an apparent high-end Linux variant.
Developing operating systems is not cheap, a fact that is borne out by the continuing consolidation of the Unix market, which is also threatened by the creep of Microsoft's Windows 2000 up the enterprise.
And HP has already been much criticised in the past for de-emphasising Unix in favour of Windows 2000. Having two Unix flavours on its hands is only likely to send out even more mixed messages and confuse its customers further, however, especially as Linux moves into the high end over time.
No forced move to Linux
But Terry Walden, marketing manager for HP 9000 and HP/UX, said the company had no intention of dropping HP/UX and forcing customers to move to Linux. It would create a seamless environment to make migration as simple as possible for those customers that wanted to move, however, he explained.
"We're not about telling customers what they should be doing. We think that different customers have different views. Long term, there will be 100,000 customers using HP/UX and 100,000 customers using Linux," he added.
But Gary Barnett, head of research in North America for research group Ovum, said HP's move indicated that Linux had now gained a significant foothold in the Unix market.
"We're seeing Unix vendors almost obliged to support Linux because of the market share opportunities that surround it. It's a very positive move for Linux. One of the essential things for operating system success is broadband and preferably heavyweight support for it," he explained.
Although Barnett admits he was sceptical about Linux's potential at first, he now predicts that it could be as little as 18 months before the OS starts to appear at the top of IT department lists, alongside other Unix variants and Windows 2000. He attributes this to the mindshare it has already won in the industry.
"When you watch technology for any length of time, you realise its not always the best technology that wins. It's not just about technology. It's about marketing and mindshare," he attested.
But although Barnett believes that Linux still has some way to go before it will be capable of competing at the high end of the market, he said the OS's endorsement by IBM and HP should provide users with "a degree of confidence" that could speed up its adoption.
Consolidation against competition
He added that the Unix market had little choice but to consolidate around Linux over time, though, so it could compete more effectively against the threat of Windows 2000.
"Windows 2000 is a very good operating system. It's a very serious competitor. If the Unix world allows Microsoft to compete with Unix variants, it's making Microsoft's task a lot easier. But Microsoft is acutely aware that Linux as a competitive force is growing in importance day by day. The gap between Linux the reality and Linux the hype is narrowing very quickly," he said.
"What end users want is something that works and that is not going to cost them an arm and a leg to run," he added.
But other industry watchers believe that Linux has a long way to go before it will take over from Unix. Mat Hanrahan, an analyst at Bloor Research, attested that HP's adoption of Linux would not necessarily spell the end for HP/UX. "The old grey-bearded kind of Unix has considerable shelf-life," he claimed.
The leading Unix variants will continue to lead at the high end of the market for the time being, he said, with Linux relegated to the commodity end. "Stripped-down Linux managing appliances - I can see that happening in the future," he added.
Meta Group analyst Phil Dawson agreed. "Linux needs to mature before the market even considers replacing one of the three leading Unix[es]. It needs to move up the food chain and that is a two to three year process," he said.
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