Byte Magazine, January 1998

"The Reports of Unix's death are greatly exaggerated"

by John Montgomery

Unix is not dead. Although much of the press and the analyst community make like it's just a matter of time before Unix simply drops off the face of the earth, it just ain't so. Users are still installing it, resellers are still recommending it, and a passel of new development is going on. Traditional leaders in the Unix community, such as Sun Microsystems and The Santa Cruz Operation (SCO), have recently announced significant revisions to their OSes and plan yet more for 1998. And the ever-remarkable Linux is incorporating new technologies at an almost-frightening pace.

But for all this development, the Unix community still faces some challenges. Many of the resellers and users interviewed for this article cite a lack of high-quality desktop productivity applications. Others worry over the rift that's developing between SCO, the holder of the AT&T Unix lineage, and Sun, one of the most vociferous proponents of Unix. And many others are wondering what to do about Windows NT.

Linux is what's bringing new hope to the Unix community, though. This may seem a little odd since, technically speaking, Linux isn't Unix -- in fact, it was created specifically not to use any Unix source code. But it doesn't matter, since Linux is so similar to Unix in its user and development interfaces. Third-party developers are answering the call for high-quality desktop applications with products such as Red Hat's ApplixWare and Star Division's StarOffice. And, as Hewlett-Packard, IBM, SCO, and Sun go after ever-more-rarified server and workstation environments, ceding the low end to NT, Linux is right in there, giving NT a run for its money.

That Windows NT Thing

So who on earth would say that Unix is dead? Easy:Microsoft. The perception that Unix is moribund owes much of its power to NT and the marketing muscle behind it. Microsoft goes to great lengths to say and show that NT is an enterprise-class solution -- that it's scalable and reliable. And analyst's predictions have put NT in the limelight, saying that it owns a fair share of the server market.

But NT isn't all that the press releases would have you believe, according to the resellers I interviewed. Chris Daniels , manager of consulting services of Cincinnati-based DLP Technologies (which is a Microsoft Solution Provider, as well as an integrator for many different Unix flavors), paints a different picture.

"We sell NT if a client needs personal productivity apps, has maybe 10 to 20 users, and wants easy administration," he says. "In larger businesses, we still have a ton of clients running mission-critical database and accounting apps, such as Oracle," which, Daniels believes, runs better on Unix than on NT. He says that he's seen his Unix business grow by about the same amount as his NT business, but he does more Unix business overall.

These resellers say that NT is entering the business as a low-end server. Mission-critical applications still run on Unix. There are even some cases where Linux is displacing NT at the low end. "We've replaced a few NT Internet servers with Caldera because the companies were having problems with reliability and DNS configuration," says Glenn Jacobson, president of Unique Systems, a system integrator based in Holland, Ohio.

NT certainly isn't a force to be ignored. But it's not the death knell for Unix.

It's the Applications, Stupid

Much of Unix's bum rap comes because different people are making technical decisions today than in years past. "Decision-making is being changed from technical people in back rooms to executives in front rooms," says Greg Forest, Manager of ISV Technical Programs at SCO. This change has signaled a change in how OS's are chosen: "If an executive doesn't see an office suite, he or she doesn't want it," Forest adds.

No one questions Unix's stability or scalability, nor the power of the applications that run on it. The problem is that many of these applications aren't end-user applications with pretty faces. Daniels agrees. "Unix has always had accounting and databases, but we need solid groupware and productivity apps," he says. "You need an office suite, you need a group calendaring system, you need a BackOffice kind of thing."

It's not that these suites don't exist, either. Red Hat's ApplixWare for Linux, for example, is pretty impressive, with a spreadsheet, a word processor, an HTML editor, and a presentation graphics system. And, thanks to some of the x86 Unix compatibility systems, it will run on SCO UnixWare. Similarly, Star Division's StarOffice ships with Caldera's OpenLinux Base. It includes a word processor, a presentation graphics system, a database, and a spreadsheet.

Basically, then, the problem is that these applications aren't Microsoft Office. It's not that Office is necessarily better than, say, ApplixWare (although several ApplixWare users I spoke to said that Office still has a bit of an edge in features), but that people have gotten used to using Office and are heavily invested in what they've already learned.

"What would excite me about a switch to a product like ApplixWare?" asks a Linux reseller who didn't want his name used. "People are creatures of habit. People that grew up on one product tend not to want to change," he explains.

One of the things that entices people to change is Unix's stability, says Jacobson. He tells a tale of woe involving a Word document that crashed Windows 95 whenever he loaded it, no matter what system he tried loading it on. But after he switched to ApplixWare, everything was fine.

Since this article was written, Oracle, Sybase, and Corel have announced they will be releasing software that will run under Linux on the Intel i386 architechture

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