Enterprise Unix Roundup: Sun and Linux -- Subplots in the Unix Epic

By Michael Hall (Send Email)
Posted Dec 24, 2003


When people think "enterprise Unix," we suspect "compelling story" isn't the first thing to come to mind. The Unix story as told across decades is epic stuff, with acts of darkest treason and titanic clashes between industry giants. The Unix story as told across months or days is dull. That's part of its allure. Unix just sits there and runs. It's been just sitting there and running for more than four decades. Sometimes, it sits and runs so quietly that a pundit decides it has died and says so to much acclaim (or outrage) before Unix goes on about its business of not going away. We dissect this year's chapter in the ongoing Unix epic and pull out two subplots: Sun and Linux. Apple issued updates to OS X 10.2 and 10.3, and Red Hat released an update to its Linux kernel and Apache packages. We take the traditional Unix tail command to the next level with multitail.

As much as we'd like to spin a narrative about some new, exciting innovation that rocked the Unix world in 2003, we can't: Unix continues to just work, people continue to just use it in one of its many flavors, and Microsoft continues to wonder why it won't just die already.

When we looked back over the past year, though, we found a pair of subplots in the Unix story worth noting. They haven't been resolved by a long shot, but we predict they'll figure prominently in the Unix tale in a few years.

First, there's the Sun Story:

From early announcements about something called "Orion" to the release of the confusingly named Java Enterprise System, 2003 was Sun's year to regroup and set the stage to move ahead next year. We'll take the reasonable approach to licensing Sun's offering, we'll take its newfound x86 religion, and we hope the company will leave its schizophrenic relationship with Linux behind. Besides releasing its Java Enterprise and Desktop System and announcing a partnership with AMD, this was also the year Sun end-of-lifed every single product from Linux server appliance acquiree Cobalt. Cobalt cost Sun an impressive $2.1 billion in 2001. Two years later: *poof*.

It will take another year to see whether all this ends well for Sun. If it doesn't, only two major Unix players will remain in the server space: HP, which has adopted a non-confrontational stance where its HP-UX and Linux are concerned; and IBM, which is clearly pushing toward a day when Linux relieves it of the responsibility of doing too much more with AIX. Sun's fall will go down as the moment when no one could argue with the proposition that "old Unix" has waned. However, if Sun pulls together and recovers from its slump, 2004 will go down as the year proprietary Unix held the line against Linux.

The other big story this year was Linux:

The good half of the Linux story this year was the evolution of the Linux pure-plays into something more than confused shrinkwrap distributors. Red Hat made the controversial decision to drop its retail effort and end-of-life its Red Hat Linux product in favor of its enterprise and advanced offerings. That decision earned the wrath of much of Red Hat's hobbyist base but signified an important turning point for the company after years of trying to figure out the correct business model.

Novell's pending acquisition of SUSE was also interesting news: NetWare still has its loyalists, but their loyalty always seemed to be more about the NetWare way of doing things, and less about the operating system itself. If Novell does its job well, those loyalists will continue to not care about the operating system while they reap the benefits of the management software riding on its back, further establishing Linux as an enterprise operating system.

The bad half of the Linux story this year was SCO's lawsuit against IBM, which will be with us for another year or two. Since we launched this column, few weeks have gone by that haven't involved something about the suit, and there's little indication that the rate of assorted invective and accusations between SCO and Linux supporters will let up at all in 2004. SCO's waning relevance pretty much dictates a "negative attention is better than no attention" approach to publicity, which has resulted in a string of threats, announcements, and even treatises that have alternated between puzzling and amusing.

We started with a view of the SCO suit that was fairly studied in its neutrality. But as the year progressed, every time SCO published some snippet of an alleged IP violation, convincing counter arguments have come from the Linux community. Just this past week, SCO sent out another letter, which named files the company says were clear indications of copycat plagiarism by Linux developers. It was refuted by none other than Linux architect Linus Torvalds, who not only remembered writing some of the files in question in 1991, but also can convincingly point out that they were wholly original to him by virtue of embarrassing mistakes he made as a younger, less experienced programmer.

So as the year winds down, our measured and seasoned perspective must naturally involve putting some faith in the legal system to grind toward a just resolution. But we've given SCO months to make a convincing public case, and it has not. So our less measured and less patient perspective is one of exasperation with a company relying on vague threats and misrepresentations of open source software to keep its name above the fold.

This portion of the Unix story matters because it represents a defining moment for Linux. If SCO successfully makes the case that Linux is irredeemably tainted, it will represent a significant weakening of a force that has redefined the way the Unix world worked during the past five years. It will throw IBM's emphasis on Linux into serious question; putting the largest, wealthiest backer of Linux in the enterprise in question. While SCO may imagine it will see an uptick in business as organizations flock to a less tainted source for enterprise Unix, we suspect such a result will instead accelerate the growth of Windows.

In Other News

  • Red Hat announced plans to acquire Sistina Software, the company behind the Linux kernel's logical volume manager (LVM), a key component of Linux's use as a storage platform. One analyst went so far as to say that the buy positions Sistina (and, by extension, Red Hat) to be "the Veritas of the Linux world."
  • Sun had some good news on the deployment front as it edged out IBM and HP for a multiyear, multimillion-dollar deal with Office Depot.
  • Novell announced that it's been helping to further muddy the SCO/IBM suit by filing for copyright to the Unix source code, which SCO claims to hold under a 1996 agreement. Since SCO has filed its own copyright notices to the Unix source code, the net effect seems to be a likely delay in the SCO/IBM suit as the conflicting claims are sorted out. (Sorry. We had to get one more SCO item in before the end of the year. It's a habit we'll strive to break in 2004.)

Security Roundup

  • Apple issued updates to OS X 10.3 ("Panther") and 10.2 ("Jaguar"). The fixes deal with a variety of issues and patches several Unix-centric applications previously covered here, including rsync and fetchmail. There are also patches to Apple's implementation of dhcp. Several denial of service and privilege escalation bugs have been fixed as well. Details and links are available on Apple's update page.
  • Red Hat has released an update to its Linux kernel package as well as a patch of its Apache package.
  • Speaking of Red Hat: By the time Enterprise Unix Roundup goes to press again, the company's announced end-of-life for Red Hat Linux 7.1, 7.2, 7.3, and 8.0 will have gone into effect. Starting December 31, patches and errata will be the responsibility of Red Hat admins downloading and compiling the packages in question themselves.
  • Vendors continue to patch lftp, the ftp/http client we reported on last week. If your vendor didn't have anything to report last week, it's worth a second look this week, as the bug represents a potential root compromise.

Tips of the Trade

Part of every Unix admin's life seems to be spending a rainy afternoon watching log files scroll by. We recently found ourselves in the position of debugging an Apache install that didn't want to behave, and we had to track messages across three log files simultaneously. While the traditional Unix tail command can take multiple file arguments, such as tail -f log1.log log2.log log3.log to continuously scroll the last line of several logs, multitail takes things to the next level, and we wish we'd found it sooner.

Multitail has a ton of features, including multiple, ncurses-driven output windows on a single console. It also provides for color highlighting through regular expressions, so a particular piece of information won't slip by in the rush of log data.

With the switch -m {lines}, multitail remembers the designated number of lines in its buffer, permitting a scroll back through the log without having to open it in another program like less or more.

With the -I switch, multitail merges the output of multiple log files, making it possible to watch, for example, Apache's access.log and error.log file at the same time.

Multitail can also handle output from other programs, making it a potential replacement for another old Unix standby: watch.

Multitail is available from developer Folkert van Heusden's Web site. It is verified to run on Linux, the BSD family, Solaris, AIX, HP-UX, Irix, and even Windows.

Christmas Present

To end the year on a festive note, we'll leave you with an old chestnut:

The Unix Christmas Song

better !pout !cry
better watchout
lpr why
santa claus <north pole >town

cat /etc/passwd >list
ncheck list
ncheck list
cat list | grep naughty >nogiftlist
cat list | grep nice >giftlist
santa claus <north pole > town

who | grep sleeping
who | grep awake
who | grep bad || good
for (goodness sake) {
be good
}

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