Unix leap of faith

Don’t wait until the rest of the world notices the efforts of Apple, Novell, and Sun

Unix servers are making strides even if they aren’t making a whole lot of noise. But those of us who are listening closely and willing to take calculated risks can beat the rush.

During my recent keynote at the Mac Networkers Retreat in Santa Barbara, Calif., one of my slides got me on an unexpected tangent. I was talking about the impact that Apple’s OS X could have on IT, and I realized that its impact goes well beyond Apple’s revenues and well beyond Apple. Tiger (OS X 10.4, due in the first half of 2005) will certainly make it a more serious contender as an overall server OS. It will have some good company in the form of other commercial Unix offerings that are somewhat buried under the blankets of their vendors’ history. Apple, Novell, and Sun Microsystems have made investments in entry Unix servers that will mature during the next 12 months. I think the returns will be substantial, both for these vendors and for those in IT who understand why Unix is accelerating so rapidly.

Consider the leap from Windows NT 4.0 to Windows 2000. Windows 2000 was popularly portrayed as Microsoft’s first enterprise-grade OS. Many businesses had done very well with Windows NT 4.0, yet it was popularly derided as an unscalable adaptation of a desktop operating system. That assertion was far from true, but it took years for Microsoft to get that point across. It would have been a shame if Microsoft had stuck to the desktop.

Apple’s OS revamp will have a lot of observers hailing Tiger as the debut of the enterprise Mac platform. Those of us who use Apple’s systems know it’s already there. We know that Apple kept its OS open and worked closely with open source developers. The Xserve G5 is a high-performance, 64-bit-capable, 1U rack-mount server in the $5,000 price class. That price includes OS X Server with an unlimited client license, and the same Java enterprise server (WebObjects). That’s a compelling story for a company that’s been selling Unix servers for only two years.

Being more focused and streamlined, Apple can find success with a much smaller crew and in fewer than the five years it took Microsoft to get there.

As does Apple, Novell knows what it’s like to live on the outer edge of the radar. Both companies are revered by those who use their products, but their recent accomplishments are blurred in the dim light of history. Novell’s acquisition of SuSE and Ximian made it an open source powerhouse rivaled only by Red Hat. Novell lends a solid-gold brand and reputation to open source efforts. It also delivers 64-bit server technology access to customers at all levels. Nonetheless, Novell will have to keep waiting, working, and teaching to expand the reach of its Linux products.

In operating systems, it looks like Sun is up against the wall. Solaris 10 will give Sun a fresh shot at IT shops that underutilize or do not use the Solaris OS. Here, falling off the radar completely will give Sun a strange advantage. It can remake itself as a new company, planting a fresh flag in the entry market with the combination of 64-bit Opteron rack servers and the quite remarkable Solaris 10. Sun’s technology will be ready before customers are ready to appreciate it.

Grab the goods, skills, and relationships that will be in short supply when the rest of IT catches on. Those who find the truth for themselves don’t have to wait for others to convince them.