The Future of Unix

Dan Olds
During the summer of 2009, we observed a few milestones. It was the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, and it also put us 40 years beyond Woodstock. But 1969 also has some significance for technology, since it marked the birth of the Unix operating system. While this landmark received a fair amount of attention from the industry press, it also sparked speculation about the future of Unix. Is the venerable OS a dinosaur on its way to extinction? Who uses Unix, and how long do they plan to keep using it? Over the years, we've had the same questions.

At Gabriel Consulting Group, we conduct annual surveys among data center personnel on a wide range of topics and issues. It's one of the ways we track trends, gauge opinion on IT issues, and see how the vendors stack up against each other in the eyes of customers. One of these surveys is aimed at x86 server users and another goes out to the Unix crowd. Our results consistently tell us that Unix boxes are a critical component of medium-sized and large data centers, and that the pundits who regularly predict the operating system's demise are-well-just wrong. (But let's be charitable; maybe they're just not paying attention.)

Or perhaps they're simply counting. Systems based on x86 processors running Windows and Linux have surpassed the (generally) RISC-based servers running Unix in both unit volumes and sales revenue over the past few years. This isn't a big surprise; x86 system technology has gotten better over time, and these small systems have become commodities for the most part. They've taken over many of the tasks that used to sit on Unix systems, including web serving, file/print serving, and the application layer of many applications.

However, Unix systems are typically the backbone of most mid-sized and larger data centers. They aren't the single-workload machines of the past; they now run multiple workloads, and those workloads are large databases and the apps that run the business. If these applications crash, something bad happens-revenue isn't booked, parts aren't ordered, or bills aren't sent out. Unix-based systems are truly mission-critical in today's data centers. While you can argue that every system is mission-critical to someone, it's clear from our research that Unix systems are running truly important workloads-the kind of apps that if you have a bad problem, your company might have to disclose it in an SEC filing.

 In our most recent survey, 91 percent of respondents said that Unix systems are strategic in their organization and critical to the functioning of their business.

If Unix systems are so strategic, why has there been significant Unix to Windows/Linux migration over the past few years? As x86 offerings have become more suitable for data center use, they've taken on a lot of workloads, but not typically the most important applications that require vertical scalability and need to perform under extremely heavy loads. It's also generally accepted that Unix operating systems offer a higher degree of availability and security than what can be achieved with Windows or Linux today. Much of the Unix to Windows/Linux migration can be explained as moving workloads from small Unix-based systems, typically Web servers, file servers and the like, to lower-cost x86 servers that are more than up for the task.

And besides, Unix usage is increasing.  In our most recent survey, close to 70 percent of participants report their use of Unix is growing. These numbers may come as a surprise to those who see Unix as a legacy operating system that is slowly dying, but these results have been consistent over the past four years of our survey.

Most of the respondents said that Unix growth was primarily taking place in the midrange and high-end-loosely defined as systems with greater than four sockets. Other questions asked what class of system our survey respondents would be purchasing in the near future. Around 65 percent said that their upcoming systems would be larger than their present servers. We also found significant interest in running Unix on blades running POWER, Itanium or SPARC processors, with 61 percent of these customers saying they either already own or are planning to purchase these systems.

While it may seem like x86 system virtualization gets most of the attention these days, virtualization came to Unix systems back in the late 1990s with both hard and soft partitioning. Now, all of the major Unix operating systems (Solaris, AIX and HP-UX) each have a full slate of virtualization mechanisms, including virtual machines on soft partitions (like VMware), workload partitions (multiple apps on a single OS instance-something VMware doesn't offer), and even hard physical partitions (again, not available in x86 land). The Unix world is a bit ahead of the game in virtualization adoption, and some of their virtualization technology is ahead of the x86 world as well.

Of those who expect to make a Unix system purchase, 63% say that the new systems will be larger than what they presently use. This makes sense; mission-critical workloads are growing larger, and systems are being used to host multiple applications. Almost two-thirds of survey respondents have virtualized more than half of their Unix-based systems.

Among the customers in our survey, almost a third are hosting more than 25 separate workloads on their most highly virtualized system. In some cases, these are unrelated collections of important applications located in one place for efficiency or multi-tier apps, but some customers are putting, for example, the application and database tier in separate partitions on one large Unix system.

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Dec 25, 2009 6:12 PM John McLaughlin John McLaughlin  says:
I agree with your analysis and would point out that Linux and MacOS are forms of UNIX too! Solaris, HP-UX, AIX, MacOS are certified to use the UNIX brand. There are fees and test suites to get a version of UNIX branded by the Open Group as UNIX which notes about Linux on its web site, "Recent versions of Glibc include much functionality from the Single UNIX Specification, Version 2 (for UNIX 98) and later." The Linux Standard Base effort is based on the POSIX specification, the Single UNIX Specification, and several other open standards, but extends them in certain areas. Linux in the server market is synonymous with "commodity" x86 computing. The HPC market is now dominated by that combination. I believe that two other markets will convert to UNIX/commodity: Networked Storage and Clustered Databases Expect to see appliances where the low cost of UNIX and commodity hardware are keys to the low cost of the overall solution (DB appliance or Storage appliance). We can see hints of that future in the Sun 7000 open storage platform (OpenSolaris and x86 servers with cool flash technology) and with the Sun/Oracle database machine (Linux, Oracle RAC, flash, infinband, storage in the cluster). Reply
Dec 29, 2009 1:12 PM Bob Diebel Bob Diebel  says:
"Systems based on x86 processors running Windows and Linux have surpassed the (generally) RISC-based servers running Unix" "If Unix systems are so strategic, why has there been significant Unix to Windows/Linux migration over the past few years?" I do not know what surpises me more... Your combining Windows&Linux, or separating Linux&UNIX I think either is a bit of a stretch. UNIX will never die as long as Linux is around. Windows, that's a totally different beast... lets not talk about it. Reply
Jul 13, 2011 8:07 AM LangleyJeri LangleyJeri  says:
If you are in the corner and have got no cash to go out from that point, you would need to take the mortgage loans. Just because it would help you for sure. I get consolidation loans every year and feel OK just because of this. Reply

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