Enterprise Unix Roundup: The Evolving OS Landscape

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With NT 4 support out, Solaris 10 about to go gold, and Linux continuing to explode, OS choice looms large in '05. We highlight what else to watch for this year. When Windows Resource Kits don't quite cut it, consider Pstools.

Amy Newman
Michael Hall
The normally quiet waning days of the year were not to be in 2004. As the year wound down, Microsoft shut off public support for its eight-year-old NT 4 server, as planned, while Novell opened Open Enterprise Server to public beta and Linus Torvalds signed off on the tenth iteration of the 2.6 kernel. Solaris continued hovering between beta and gold, with a late-January production release date continuing to be the party line.

All of this has us mulling over whether 2005 will be the year the server operating system landscape shifts.

Will Linux overtake Windows and Unix, we wonder in our more hyperbolic moments. Not likely, our inner voice of reason answers. In fact, while the latest set of statistics from research firm IDC shows Unix losing ground, it predicts Windows will take over as the dominant server operating system by 2008. We understand where Windows has its place — integration and a smooth interface are convenient and cost-saving additions.

Despite the warnings and the phased-out support, Windows NT users still abound. An IDC report released last April estimated that by year end, 17 percent of the installed Windows server base would still be using Windows NT 4.0. That makes for a pretty big wildcard population. Add to that the fact that upgrading from NT to Windows Server 2003 is more of a migration than an update, and enterprises looking to make the jump will, presumably, consider less costly options.

Solaris 10 is free, a move designed to pit Sun directly against Red Hat. But by making its operating system free for everyone from home users to Fortune 500 enterprises, Sun presents a compelling alternative. SMBs may be unwilling to part with their paid-off NT boxes, and larger enterprises may be dithering about whether to migrate an insignificant NT-based application that is actually a vital part of another application and risk losing all of the data. Having a few low-cost options sweetens the mix.

Microsoft is no doubt aware of this, and it probably helped fuel its virulent "True Costs of Linux" campaign that ran throughout 2004. Though the fact that Linux accounted for 40 percent of new servers shipped in 2004, may have been enough of an impetus.

NT 4 is, by Microsoft's own admission, obsolete technology. Yet, Microsoft's choice to discontinue support may turn out to be fortuitous both for Sun and the corporate Linux players. The timing on Solaris 10 and NetWare 6.5 couldn't be better. Windows Server 2003, which is expensive and two years into its life cycle, doesn't offer tremendous selling points for very many enterprises when less-expensive and widely supported products are also out there.

Of course, enterprises have a third option: Don't do anything. Taking the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" route and letting the server run itself into the ground may be the most costly and difficult-to-plan-for option, but it may turn out to be one most commonly selected. And the one from which nobody benefits.

Also on the Radar

Three other areas we'll be keeping a close watch on in 2005 are:

  • Apple Grows Its Enterprise Role: For as long as Apple detractors have poo-pooed the company for its tiny market share, Apple devotees have argued that if the company's bottom line is healthy, the size of its share shouldn't be of much concern. The upcoming OS X 10.4 (Tiger) has features aimed square at interoperability with (or replacement of) Microsoft's server software. Add rumors of economy Mac client hardware, and the stage is set for the company to shed its image as an overpriced premium brand and gain some cred as a serious enterprise contender, even among the budget-minded.

  • Novell Rocks Red Hat: We once joked that SUSE was like everyone's favorite college band: Big in Europe, and sure to make it big Any Day Now in the United States. That was before Novell snapped the company up and began redirecting the NetWare brand from "OS" to "management tools." Red Hat has had a few years of nearly undisputed dominance among enterprise Linux contenders and it acts like it. Dell's recent swat at Red Hat is just the beginning.

  • SCO v. IBM Continues, No One Cares: When this case first broke, it looked big. But legal funds, indemnification plans, and agressive pushback from Linux distributors mean SCO can't use a general atmosphere of FUD to wring license money from anyone without facing big legal expenses it now can't afford. The late court date (November) means the story will remain, but as a ghost of its former self. We'll be looking elsewhere for red meat.

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This article was originally published on Jan 7, 2005
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