eWEEK 30: Unix Proves Staying Power as Enterprise Computing Platform

By Sean Michael Kerner  |  Posted 2013-11-22

eWEEK 30: Unix Proves Staying Power as Enterprise Computing Platform

Back in 1984 during the early days of PC Week, Unix was not a new operating system, but it was an operating system that was just beginning to take root in the mainstream of enterprise computing.

Unix was first developed in 1969 at AT&T's Bell Labs. But it was during the mid-1980s when its commercial roots were first planted and IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems began to sell Unix to customers.

In 1983, Sun released SunOS 1.0, which was based on the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) version of Unix, led by Sun co-founder Bill Joy. That same year, AT&T introduced Unix System V, which was functionally different from the BSD-based SunOS. Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) released its first Unix system called ULTRIX in 1984, which was also BSD-based. The competition between BSD-based versions of Unix and AT&T System V-based versions of Unix was a core part of the Unix experience of the 1980s.

Unix System V's debut was a key milestone in the evolution of the operating system because it was the version on which Hewlett-Packard and IBM based their respective commercial editions of Unix. HP-UX 1.0 was first released in 1984, and IBM's AIX first debuted in 1986.

Kirk Bresniker, vice president, chief technologist and HP Fellow for HP Servers, has a long history working on HP-UX. Bresniker told eWEEK that in the early days of Unix, it was primarily deployed on workstations with one or two processors. In contrast, modern Unix systems can now scale to hundreds of cores with massive scalability.

Tony Befi, vice president of Enterprise Systems Program Management in IBM's Systems and Technology Group, started his career at IBM in 1979 working on the mainframe side of the business and moved over to the Unix side in 1996. Befi told eWEEK that his earliest recollection of AIX back in 1986 was also as a workstation technology.

"The early Unix marketplace was workstations running graphics processing and technical computing," Befi said.

The evolution of Unix from a workstation technology to an enterprise computing and server technology has a lot to do with the evolution of the workstation concept itself, Markus Flierl, vice president of software development for Solaris Core Technology at Oracle, told eWEEK.

"The whole notion of a workstation has really changed," he said.

In the 1980s, the workstation was where people did all their work, where applications were based and where code was compiled, Flierl recounted. The notion of a dedicated workstation where a user is only able to do things on that one machine began to shift in the 1990s as server-based computing took hold.

In 1990, IBM launched the RS/6000 hardware platform running AIX, which was still targeted at workstations, although IBM's Befi said it started the evolution of AIX into the enterprise computing space.

"When we launched the RS/6000, I looked at Unix from a technology perspective doing peer reviews and at that time it wasn't clear where it would wind up," Befi said.

For much of Unix's history, the operating system ran primarily on proprietary RISC silicon including DEC Alpha, Sun SPARC and IBM Power, but there were x86 variants as well. In 1980, AT&T licensed Unix to Microsoft, which built its own variant of Unix called Xenix.

eWEEK 30: Unix Proves Staying Power as Enterprise Computing Platform

Microsoft specifically targeted Xenix for deployment on the IBM PC and XT machines running Intel x86 chips. While Microsoft today is best known for its Windows operating system, Xenix was released five years before the first Windows 1.0 release in 1985.

The Santa Cruz Organization (SCO) began to use Xenix in 1983 as part of its own flavor of Unix that it sold for the IBM PC. Microsoft exited the Xenix business in 1987, selling 75 percent of its Unix assets to SCO.

Xenix wasn't the only flavor of Unix to run on x86. Sun first ported Unix to the x86 platform in 2003, and Oracle continues to support Unix on x86 as well as SPARC in 2013.

By the mid-1990s, Befi said it became clear that Unix would play a bigger role in the enterprise, which is something that remains true to this day. Befi recounted that during the mid-1990s there was an office pool on his whiteboard at IBM about when the last mainframe in the world would be unplugged. The prevailing notion at the time was that all the mainframe workloads would migrate to Unix.

"The reality is that though things shift over time, not all workloads moved off the mainframe to Unix," Befi said.

Long-Term Compatibility

In 1992, a tectonic shift occurred in the Unix space when Sun defected from its BSD roots. That year, Sun launched Solaris, which was the first Sun Unix operating system to be based on AT&T's Unix System V.

Oracle's Flierl noted that there was a lot of market upheaval when Sun shifted from Sun OS to Solaris. Flierl now leads Solaris development for Oracle, which acquired Sun in 2010 for $7.4 billion. The 1992 Sun Unix upheaval wasn't just about a name change; the move to the AT&T Unix base from BSD also brought with it software compatibility and porting issues.

The lesson of that era has echoed through the rest of Unix history, and binary compatibility is now a core tenet for Solaris, as well as other Unix vendors. With binary compatibility, software vendors can rest assured that software will survive and be supported on the operating system for years at a time instead of just from release to release.

The ability to have binary compatibility in Unix has also been impacted by the underlying hardware platforms used by vendors. HP-UX of the 1980s was tied to HP's PA-RISC silicon architecture. By the mid-1990s, HP embraced Intel's Itanium architecture instead as the basis for its Unix systems.

HP-UX has been at Version 11 since 1997, in part as a testament to the fact that all releases since then have compatibility as a core feature. HP stresses that fact by keeping the same version number in place. HP's Bresniker noted that each update to HP-UX Version 11 and in particular the 11i updates have all been long-lived releases, in contrast to the early HP-UX releases of the 1980s when there were frequent major updates.


eWEEK 30: Unix Proves Staying Power as Enterprise Computing Platform

"Part of that speaks to the fact that we have dynamic capabilities in the HP-UX kernel that now allow us to continuously provide additional features to increase quality and performance," Bresniker said.

By keeping the same operating system version with the HP-UX 11i series, there is no disruption for existing applications, which wouldn't necessarily be true if there was a major release version, he said.

A major release version would force independent software vendor (ISV) partners to recertify their software against the new revision. With HP-UX 11i, Bresniker said HP has been able to keep the same major version in place even as new Itanium silicon and servers have reached the market with dramatically increased scale and performance.

The Next 30 Years

Although Unix has changed dramatically since PC Week was first launched in 1984, it still remains a relevant and core component of the modern computing landscape. There are a number of reasons why Unix, which first saw commercial success in the 1980s, is alive and well in 2013.

There are always choices that organizations can make, according to Oracle's Flierl. In his view, the long-term success of Unix is not about how it compares to other operating systems like Windows or even Linux, which is based on Unix. Linux first debuted in 1991 and has emerged to become a viable competitor to Unix. IBM, HP and Oracle all support Linux as well as Unix today.

"A lot of technologies have come and gone, and then there are technologies that have come and stayed relevant," Flierl said. "At the end of the day, what it comes down to is if the technology is solving a problem and if it is reliable and cost-efficient."

The constant path of innovation from the 1980s onward is also seen by Flierl as being at the heart of why Unix and Solaris have been successful for so long.

The long life of Unix server systems is another key component of the technology's success. HP's Bresniker said he recently visited a customer site that was running the latest HP Superdome servers with HP-UX and saw an HP-UX server that was a decade or more old still churning away.

"I'm always pleased to find our Unix equipment humming away in the corner of a data center doing a great job," Bresniker said. "These platforms are so long lived because they are so reliable and they are incorporated into the fabric of our day-to-day business."

IBM's Befi said he believes there are still some RS/6000 AIX systems from the 1990s in operation, though he noted that when the technology gets to a certain age it typically becomes compelling to upgrade it.

Unix 30 years ago was an evolving technology with lots of innovation ahead of it. Now in 2013, HP, Oracle and IBM all expect that Unix will be around for at least another 30 years, with more innovation yet to come.

"We're playing long ball here," Befi said. "This technology will be around longer than me."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.


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