Project Monterey - the joint initiative between IBM ,SCO, and Sequent for a common Unix on IA-64 flavour - was given a massive boost this week with the announcement that Compaq will become the latest supplier to join the party.
Just a few years ago Unix's original goal of providing a unified, non proprietary operating system was lost in a sea of different, competing versions and the growing threat of Windows NT.
However, Compaq joining Monterey and other recent announcements by the main Unix players have given Unix fundamentalists renewed hope. The main Unix players have moved closer to providing developers with the Holy Grail of a single platform to write applications for, with the publication of a set of common interfaces.
Monterey itself was announced last October as an alliance between IBM, SCO, and Sequent to create a common Unix flavour, combining technology from all three companies' platforms, for Intel's IA-64 architecture, as and when it becomes available, as well as for the IA-32 architecture and IBM's own PowerPC platform.
While it will be hard to evaluate the full impact of Monterey until IA-64 actually ships, Compaq's joining gives it a huge boost, bringing one of the biggest players in the industry onboard. The Unix market appears to have consolidated into three main camps, with the Monterey consortium pitched against Hewlett-Packard's HP-UX and Sun's Solaris.
"Compaq is extending our commitment to SCO customers by endorsing the Monterey initiative," said Tim Yeaton, general manager of the Unix software division at Compaq.
While Compaq is committed to supporting Monterey, it has not yet announced any specific details about what technology it will provide to the alliance, although Yeaton discussed in the announcement Compaq's work on the non stop clustering technology and the data centre acceleration programme for the existing Unixware product.
Compaq's decision to endorse Monterey for the IA-64 was not wholly unexpected - it is already SCO's largest reseller by far, with an estimated business worth over $1.2 billion on Unixware last year. But it is certainly welcome to the alliance, bringing it closer to achieving Monterey's objective of delivering a high volume, shrink wrapped Unix operating system.
"This gives a tremendous boost to the Monterey project," said Jonathan Eunice, analyst for Illuminata. "Compaq is a high volume box shifter, which is just what Monterey needs if it is to become successful."
Compaq will position Monterey as the operating system for its IA-64 Proliant servers, its high volume systems. However, this raises questions about what Compaq will do with its own Unix, Tru64.
By endorsing Montery, Compaq would also seem to be de facto announcing the death of its efforts to port its own Unix operating system, Tru64 - formerly Digital Unix - to the IA-64 platform. Industry watchers now believe Tru64 will now be vested on the Alpha processor platform only.
Compaq does not want to appear in public to be lacking in support for Tru64. However, since Sequent, Digital's original partner in the Digital Unix on IA-64 porting project - codenamed Bravo, had already decamped to Monterey, Compaq's decision to follow suit seems inevitable.
Analysts have welcomed this week's announcement, arguing that it represents good news both for Compaq and its customer base.
"It makes the world a little less complicated," said Kirsten Ludvigsen, Unix program manager for IT consultancy International Data Corporation (IDC).
Although Compaq executives insisted this week that the company has enough resources to continue developing more than one Unix system and that Tru64 remains very much its strategic operating system, Ludvigsen is less certain.
"We do think Tru64 users should be worried," she said. "Tru64 is a very good product but in a world where it takes volume to be successful, it has a very small market share." Tru64 users should weigh their options carefully, Ludvigsen said, to consider where their future migration options might lie.
Tru64 is currently a much more robust, scalable platform than SCO's Unixware, although Monterey is addressing these issues.
Iain Steven, software product marketing manager at Compaq, said that Compaq's goal is to be the number one Unix supplier overall and for Tru64 to be the number two Unix operating system by 2002, which he concedes is an aggressive goal.
Compaq has also lent its backing to another initiative recently launched by major Unix players, that could potentially be as important as Monterey in terms of creating a common Unix.
In an initiative backed by Intel, leading Unix players - including IBM, SCO, Compaq, and Sequent - agreed to develop and publish a set of guidelines for software developers and systems manufacturers that will make it possible for their products to run on any Intel based Unix system without having to be rewritten. These will also make it easier to recompile their software for translation to other processor platforms.
Significantly HP has backed the standards effort, called the Unix Developers Guide, although Sun Microsystems has yet to join. The guide is based on specifications drawn up by the Open Group's Unix98 initiative to standardise Unix features across different platforms.
While the Unix developers Guide will not stop Unix players competing against each other, it will help them to fight a common foe - one based in Seattle.
"If you're a SAS Institute or whoever, you only have one version of NT to write your application for," said Eunice. "If the Unix players want to compete with Microsoft they have to make it a lot less irritating for ISVs."
IBM and Intel - which is also backing Monterey - recognised this when Monterey was launched, putting millions of dollars into a fund to encourage ISVs to write applications for the platform.
"You're beginning to see a genuine desire for one Unix," said Steve Wanless, senior marketing manager for Sequent. "The goal is for developers to be able to write for just one platform."
This move towards standardisation is also being helped by the impact of Linux, which is leading towards hardware compatibility and application availability with different vendors all supporting the platform.
"With all the strategic manoeuvring taking place the waters are a bit muddied," noted Ludvigsen. Customers should look at what happens when the water clears, she advised.
What is already certain that Unix is a lot more alive than many in the industry had been predicting.
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