Enterprise Unix Roundup: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

By Amy Newman (Send Email)
Posted Aug 25, 2005


Remember when Novell was written off as Microsoft roadkill? When Orion was in Beta and Sun couldn't quite make up its mind about Linux? What a long, strange trip the past two years have been.

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Michael Hall
Amy Newman

Just over two years ago, we launched this column with a quick look at Sun Microsystems, which had managed to make headlines twice that week by snuggling up closer to SCO and making a beta release of the Orion "software train."

We also picked up on some industry support for Apple's Rendezvous (which, thanks to a trademark dispute and an ongoing case of francophilia in Cupertino, is now "Bonjour") and Sun's attempt to abscond with HP customers yet unsold on Itanium (which we were calling "Itanium 2" at the time, because it seemed polite).

Two years ago this week, we were back on Sun. It was hard not to notice that the company's "Linux thing" was emblematic of some sort of deep organizational schizophrenia. At the time, it wasn't hard to suss out why: No one using Solaris for x86 thought it was a good answer to Linux, Sun couldn't make a Linux for itself that anyone wanted, and the company was on a lot of deathwatch lists. To top it off, its own desktop had been largely written by people who had gotten into the desktop business because they wanted to take Linux places.

"It's clear that Linux has become a sort of 'cultural glue' for the Unix world," we wrote.

Sandwiched in between those two items was a bit about Novell and its struggle to recover from the mauling it had suffered at the hands of Windows.

Two years down the road, at least three things have changed:

  • First: The SCO suit, it's now apparent, is never going to end. Ever. Space travellers from the far future will find two primitive bands of humans in the post-apocalyptic rubble, hiding from the intelligent apes and launching human wave attacks with IP lawyers. They'll barely be able to do anything besides scrape out a pathetic existence and periodically croak "GPL ... anticapitalist!" and "SCO! Pawns of Mykersoft!"

  • Second: Novell just up and became a Linux company. It's still selling NetWare, yes, but it's throwing in the operating system, to boot.

  • Third: Sun got over its Linux thing by deciding to build a Solaris good enough to warrant attention from the x86 market, then tacitly admitting that even its best wasn't enough to stand up to the raw mind share Linux enjoyed. It found a relatively graceful and community-spirited way to just give the operating system away, since that's what people seem to expect these days, anyhow.

If we had to hang our narrative hat on any of those three hooks as an example of what the past two years of enterprise Unix has been about, we'd pick the third.

We've badgered Sun hard a few times for what seems like a perpetual cycle of telling everyone to wait for the next big thing ... "intending to intend." But in some ways, the company is reflective of what enterprise Unix has become with the advent of Linux and the broader open source and Free software movement.

We've badgered Sun hard a few times for what seems like a perpetual cycle of telling everyone to wait for the next big thing ... "intending to intend." But in some ways, the company is reflective of what enterprise Unix has become with the advent of Linux and the broader open source and Free software movement.

It's easy to hassle the company for coming off as a little stiff and awkward when it tries to inject some sort of drama into courting Wall Street. It's easy to get irritated over the corporate blogs of middle managers who have armed their cubicles as battlefield command posts on the fronts of the revolution.

Things like that don't mesh well with a traditional understanding of "enterprise computing," which is supposed to be about stability, predictability, and "five nines" in all things.

But at the same time, the past five or six years of Unix have been about the fact that very little is predictable anymore. If we've been covering anything for the past two years, it's been the rate at which things change, and the surprising ways in which seemingly stray factors can upset many apple carts.

SCO, for example, didn't anticipate Linux running it out of the low-end Unix market. And then it was surprised all over again when turning its contract dispute with IBM into a broader anti-Linux campaign prompted a backlash that cost it even more business.

Red Hat probably didn't imagine in 2003 that the prime challenger for its dominance in the Linux market might end up being Novell, which almost everyone had written off as a high-quality piece of roadkill with Microsoft treadmarks across its back.

And few expected Apple would ever say "forget the desktop, we want to take out Linux on the server." (Let alone migrate to x86.)

But that's the world Sun, and the rest of the Unix community, finds itself in. And it's a world that it continues to be a pleasure to cover.

This is Michael Hall's last column as coauthor of Enterprise Unix Roundup. Michael has been with Roundup since its launch in July 2003. We will miss his dry wit and sharp analysis, and we welcome Brian Proffitt to the ranks, beginning next week.

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