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The Last Unix Standing: Linux

As I write this, the hot topic on Slashdot (http://slashdot.org), the Linux gossip site of Linux gossip sites, is that the Vivek Mehra, vice president and general manager of Sun's Cobalt line (Sun's "baby" servers that run Linux), is saying that Sun is embracing Linux. A flood of opinions is pouring in: "This is great! Sun will move Linux into professional server markets!" "This is terrible! Sun will rip off Linux's best and leave the GPL in the dust." "At last, Sun has seen the light!"

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As I write this, the hot topic on Slashdot (http://slashdot.org), the Linux gossip site of Linux gossip sites, is that the Vivek Mehra, vice president and general manager of Sun’s Cobalt line (Sun’s “baby” servers that run Linux), is saying that Sun is embracing Linux. A flood of opinions is pouring in: “This is great! Sun will move Linux into professional server markets!” “This is terrible! Sun will rip off Linux’s best and leave the GPL in the dust.” “At last, Sun has seen the light!”

Oh, please. Just a week before this rant, this very same crew was in a funk because Sun had lost one of its best Linux people, Stephen DeWitt.

So what’s the truth? The truth is that Sun is in business to make money. And what does that mean? That Sun is slowly, ever so slowly, embracing Linux.

Solaris for Intel? It’s history. You can get support for Solaris 8 on Intel for the next three years and then it’s gone. Rumors keep swirling that Solaris 9 may be ported to Intel — that’s so not going to happen. Why? Because Linux is winning. I know that. You know that. IBM knows that. And, yes, so does Sun.

Within a year there won’t be a single Unix around that doesn’t include, at the very least, a Linux-compatible application programming interface (API). You can make book on it. In five years, there won’t be a Unix that can’t run a Linux program. Not that it matters — users won’t be able to tell what’s under the hood anyway. They’ll be using either KDE or Gnome, and the terminal window will be an antique.

Back at the server farm, I still expect to find IBM’s AIX and Solaris running. There will still be legacy systems running the likes of HP-UX and Caldera’s OpenServer, but that’s only because a good Unix is hard to kill. Unix does the job, it doesn’t break, and that’s all most customers want. That said, the new server operating system of 2007 will be Linux. Period.

The number gurus at IDC have spoken and Linux is on its way to ruling the server world. Now, it may be on a mainframe, it may be on a SPARC box, it could even be on an Intel Pentium VII cluster, but regardless of the hardware, the software will be Linux.

On the high end, though, I still expect to see Sun running Solaris. (And no it won’t ever be open sourced — at least not until it’s obsolete anyway.) And why shouldn’t Sun push Solaris? Linux is getting better, but Sun has had decades to perfect the blend of Solaris and SPARC. Do you think Sun’s going to give up that investment? Or, more to the point, do you think Sun is going to give up the high profit margins of SPARC equipment? I don’t think so!

Eventually, Linux will win out. The key word is “eventually”. Linux has given us what all the Unix unification efforts of years gone by could never give us: one Unix operating system for all platforms. Maybe.

You see, there’s still enough differences between Linux distributions to make life annoying if you happen to be an independent software vendor (ISV). Mind you, it’s nothing like in the bad old days when porting a program from SCO Open Desktop (remembered fondly as “Open Deathtrap”) to Perkins-Elmer Unix was pure agony. But, still, no ISV wants to spend time and money tweaking one program four times for four different distros.

That will change, too. For one thing, these days of multiple Linux distributions are on their way out. Frankly, no one in business gives a hoot if SuSE Linux has slightly newer binaries than Red Hat or that Debian is “cooler” than Mandrake. They don’t care. They just want something that works without a hitch. That means that the “big business” Linuxes, Red Hat and SuSE, will get bigger and the smaller Linuxes are going to either get bought out or disappear into hobbyist obscurity. “Ta-da!” Instant improved compatibility.

The surviving Linux distributors aren’t stupid. They wouldn’t still be in business if they were. They know that forking Linux would be repeating Unix’s old mistakes. So, I expect that the Linux Standard Base (LSB, http://www.linuxbase.org) effort will start getting more than lip service. If it doesn’t, some other Linux, with massive support from IBM and HP, will replace it. What the big computer companies want to see

is Linux, one operating system, many platforms, and they’re going to get it regardless of what anyone else wants.

Sun? They’ll go along. They’ll never be happy about it (no matter what their rhetoric says), but they’ll continue to get more pro-Linux as the years go by. The simple truth is that McNealy can see the handwriting on the wall. Linux, not Solaris, leads to the future.



Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is a long-time Unix guru and technology writer. He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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