Enterprise Unix Roundup — A Renaissance in Cupertino

By Michael Hall (Send Email)
Posted Jul 8, 2004


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If you're looking for innovation in the Unix world instead of attempts to build the better licensing scheme, Apple's where the action is. Plus, a few simple steps to get a Unix environment on your Windows box with Cygwin.

Last week we observed the latest release of the Mono project, hoping that the capability to build .NET applications would improve the lot of enterprise developers unready to abandon their Unix or Linux roots.

There's much about Mono that's worthy of celebration: The almost coy way in which Microsoft fronted .NET as a cross-platform tool seemed to establish Redmond as the de facto center of innovation in the enterprise computing world, and it seemed as if it might be another attempt to dig an early grave for Unix. The development community that formed around Mono has made a set of tools that will, if nothing else, force Microsoft to live with its words (until it can figure out a way to break something in a way that damages Mono).

In the context of Microsoft, the Unix world hasn't always performed so admirably. While it's true that Redmond's enterprise efforts have crawled their way to respectability on big iron, the company has also launched just enough initiatives to cause companies like Sun and IBM to occasionally stumble over themselves disgracefully, playing a mixed game of "stop Bill!" and "do what Bill just did!" The Ahab-like fixedness with which some major Unix players have pursued Redmond has driven some of this, and some of it is simply that Unix as a computing paradigm goes back a long way, which produces its share of reactionaries more concerned about fending off than moving ahead.

Things don't always go poorly: The infusion of Linux-powered energy has done a lot to revive the hopes of Unix in general as a computing paradigm: IBM has driven forward with Linux as a virtualization tool, others have taken it up as a way to provide massive clusters. In its native home on x86 hardware, it's what's hollowing out the rest of the Unix market space to make room for itself.

But vitality and energy aren't ferment, and a sense of ferment is what we're missing today. That's coming from somewhere altogether different, and it took a clipboard to make us think about it.

Spike Drives Home Rendezvous
Spike is a clipboard application, perhaps poorer than some folks who use clipboard applications might prefer: Its main non-networked function is to remember the last n copy operations the user conducts or to allow the user to drag files into one of its sub-clipboards for later easy access. But when Spike is activated on a network with other instances of Spike running on other machines, it becomes a collaboration tool because the different instances of Spike, abetted by Rendezvous, are able to peer up and share clipboard contents with each other. Their communications are encrypted, users can choose to not share their clipboards, and clipboards can be put behind passwords.

It's an interesting little tool that happens to run on Windows and Macintosh, and it takes the gap between the act of remembering and the computer and reduces it to a single keystroke. It also reduces the act of sharing those remembrances to one of very little setup and very little dependence on traditional IT infrastructure. It's of a kind with instant messaging in its power to step out of the channels folks in enterprise computing have spent decades building for users. In a few months, the developer says, Spike will be in a state where it brushes past issues like NAT to bridge the Internet for users.

Spike is one of several Rendezvous-enabled apps that are eroding the barriers users have had to consider up to now: SubEthaEdit does the same thing for text editors, turning them into collaborative whiteboards without the imprimatur of an "enterprise meeting solution." Apple's own iChat has similarly scrunched the distance between users to next to nothing by utilizing Rendezvous as a presence advertiser.

These implementations are as compelling to end users as they are horrific to administrators, but they're part of a general ferment that has its roots in the same place: Apple. And if you think this is building up to "Apple is the inheritor of any revolutionary impulse the Unix world has left," well, you're right.

Where the tech pundits of four or five years ago likened the coming Linux wave to a Maoist peasant insurgency, the Apple-spawned revolution is one of small proprietors and artisan coders who build small applications that work well and reliably. They're doing this on the strength of tools provided by both Apple and the open source community. While their own offerings tend to be for-pay and closed source, they're much less hostile about open source in general, and generally recognize the value of the development infrastructure they've inherited, in part, from the Free Software/open source community.

As more Unix users filter into the midst of this developer community, technologies that have largely been secondary to Apple in the past, such as AppleScript, begin to gain in currency. AppleScript is particularly compelling to Unix enthusiasts because it promises much of the same "pipe and filter" paradigm Unix has at its core, even if it's piping and filtering the output of full-blown applications like word processors and Web browsers, instead of stream editors and text formatters.

Should Aqua Be Water Under Bridge?
Still, many Unix purists don't think much of Apple because it has largely eschewed X11 as a GUI (despite providing an X11 implementation, seemingly as a gateway drug to a small but burgeoning community of Linux/Unix "switchers"). Open source/Free Software advocates, who have to be reckoned with as a large and vocal voice in Unix today, have bones to pick with the proprietary nature of Aqua, the GUI that drives OS X. Both these blocs are representative of two very powerful orthodoxies among Unix developers today. Combined with Apple's small market share and Redmond's lock on desktops, those orthodoxies could serve as powerful pressure to keep Apple in its boutique computing ghetto.

On the other hand, Apple's forays into cluster and grid computing along with its increasingly impressive server lineup offer hope for a breakout of some kind and a chance for the Unix world at large to borrow Apple's fixation on the user experience long enough to spawn a renaissance similar to the one Linux has driven up to this point. Apple's certainly doing its part, both by providing ideas and by offering back enhancements to the open source technologies and code it's borrowed from so heavily.

In a lot of ways, it'll be on enterprise shops to provide that breakout. Linux kernel developers have largely filtered one by one into large companies or corporate-sponsored development efforts (like the Open Source Development Labs) as those corporations began to notice and act on the widespread ferment Linux development was driving. That developer uptake has done much to solidify Linux's position as a valid enterprise computing choice. Apple developers are in a similar state of ferment now, using the tools they've been given to figure out ways to reduce the friction between users, computers, networks, and information.

We've written in the past about "The Unix Epic." Apple wrote a small piece of that story when it embraced Unix as the core of OS X in the first place. The question now is whether the rest of the Unix world will pay enough attention to what's going on in that tiny developer community to give it a whole chapter.

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