For the last 40 years, Unix operating systems have helped to power mission-critical IT operations around the globe. Now, as Unix enters middle age, its backers are busily developing the new specifications that they hope will carry the OS forward into the next age of computing.
Open Group execs discuss Unix’s direction — and what Linux’s growth means for the platform’s future.
Sitting at the forefront of the Unix ecosystem is the Open Group, a
vendor- and technology-neutral consortium that oversees usage of the Unix name and compliance with its specifications — particularly The Single Unix Specification, a set of specs that constitutes a Unix-compliant system.
Currently, The Single Unix Specification is at version 3 (Unix 03), though new specs are already in the works to expand on Unix 03’s successes.
“We’ve been very pleased with the uptake of Unix 03,” Andrew Josey Director of Standards at the Open Group told InternetNews.com. “We’re working on an evolution of that [for] which we’ve basically got the base specs done. We’re just working on how to roll it out.”
Doing so won’t involve reinventing the wheel. Josey said that instead of ushering in a revolutionary change in Unix, any new specs will be evolutionary in nature — and in particular, will continue to support existing platforms and prior Unix specs.
That’s critical since backward compatibility has long been an important feature of Unix. According to Josey, application binaries built for 1995’s Unix specification will still work on platforms today.
Such reliability has come to be a key selling point for Unix deployments, and for the host of companies that offer systems based on the OS. Unix 03-compliant operating systems come from multiple vendors including HP, IBM, Sun and even Apple, which has been Unix-compliant since 2007.
“Our vendors are very conservative,” Josey said.
Ensuring a measure of continued backward compatibility isn’t the only area where its backers hope the next Unix will shine.
“We’ve got some new glibc features coming in to make the API sets richer,” Josey said. “We’re looking at better internationalization support, multi-threading support, more robustness, and we’re looking at better thread handling.”
Although test suites are now being built for next version of the Unix specification, there are still several more steps ahead before the new Unix specifications become formally approved.
Josey explained that the Open Group first produces a set of higher-level standards that profile the new specifications. Then the standards go though a committee stage to help build consensus. Lastly, a formal voting process by Open Group members approves the final specification.
While the new Unix specifications will build on the Unix 03 standards, it is not yet clear what the new Unix standard will actually be named.
“We may not even do a brand number this time — we’re debating how to package it up,” Josey said. “If we do give it a number, we might call it ‘Unix 10,’ but we may not call it that at all.”
The Linux challenge
While Unix has weathered a variety of challenges over the 40 years of its existence, one of the most recent — and persistent — threats to its position in the marketplace has been the rise of Linux.
However, despite Linux’s booming appeal particularly in the datacenter, the Open Group doesn’t see Linux as a representing a danger to Unix or its standards. Instead, the relationship has become far more complementary, Josey said.
“I’ve always seen Linux as a very positive thing, and we’ve been working with the community,” Josey said. “I’ve seen Linux change from something that is quite incompatible with Unix to being much more compatible.”
The line between Unix vendors and Linux vendors has also grown far more blurry in recent years, with the major Unix vendors including HP and IBM now also the major supporters of Linux as well.
“Our members are involved in the supply side of both Unix and Linux,”
Allen Brown, CEO of The Open Group, told InternetNews.com. “It’s not about saying one is better than the other. They have different goals and different functions.”
In spite of the growth of Linux and the narrowing distinction between Unix operating systems and versions of Linux, Brown said that it’s likely that Unix will remain an important platform in the years ahead for several critical reasons.
“Forty years ago, folks like us were putting in applications that we thought wouldn’t last very long and would be ripped out,” Brown said. “Now they’re part of the legacy that you can’t rip out and have to integrate everything else with.”
Josey added that Unix is used in U.S. military assets such as aircraft that are supposed to last for 50 years. Consequently, he expects that Unix will remain vibrant and alive.
“Unlike other platforms, Unix is used more and more in mission-critical situations,” Brown said. “Because they are mission-critical deployments, it’s really difficult to get them out of the infrastructures once they’re in.”