Sunday, February 22, 2015 at 10:07 am
Who says last rites need to be administered to Unix? The Dealer Services Group of Automatic Data Processing Inc. is among the many faithful keeping the operating system alive and well. Last month, the $750 million technology division of ADP signed a $100 million deal with Digital Equipment Corp., committing to Digital’s 64-bit AlphaServer Unix system to drive enterprise applications across its 18,000 car and truck dealerships.
DSG is part of a much larger flock of followers that believe in the virtues of Unix for mission-critical and enterprise applications. Officials at companies across all industries who run some flavor of the operating system say its scalability, reliability and management capabilities still make it the most logical environment to host large applications, including SAP AG’s R/3 and Oracle Corp.’s Financials, along with data warehouses and all the back-office operations that make their organizations run.
While a Windows NT setup can cost significantly less, these Unix devotees maintain that Microsoft Corp. still has significant work to do before NT can compete with the traditional strengths of Unix. But these believers are by no means blind followers. They acknowledge that in some cases, platform preference will be dictated by the availability of appropriate third-party applications. Therefore, many are keeping a watchful eye on Microsoft’s progress to decide if–and when–the time is ripe to convert.
“In the enterprise area, we feel Unix today is the right place to be … and [that it] offers the best performance and reliability, although we’re carefully watching NT,” says Miles Lewitt, vice president of DSG’s Global Product Development, in Portland, Ore. “We intend to be pragmatists. It’s not a religious thing for us.”
The principal issue for Unix remains unchanged: If the operating system is to maintain its position in the market, vendors need to accelerate their progress in developing standard extensions as well as pare down the number of versions available. “ISVs are having to port to 20 different Unix systems, and that makes life very difficult,” says David Floyer, an analyst at International Data Corp., in Framingham, Mass. “The … Unixes have to consolidate … and that’s happening.” Floyer says there’s still work to be done to enhance Unix standards for clustering (an architecture that provides continuous, uninterrupted service), high availability (24-by-7) and administration.
Clearly, there is a market for NT, primarily in the desktop and workgroup arenas, analysts say. IDC forecasts NT spending to increase from $6.9 billion to $27 billion between 1997 and 2000. By contrast, sales of Unix systems will experience slower growth, from $24.7 billion to $39.5 billion in total worldwide sales in the same period for hardware spending.
Seamless Web integration
Internet Shopping Network Inc. counts itself among the disciples of Unix. Although the online computer superstore evaluated both NT and Sun Microsystems Inc. Unix systems in 1994, it chose the latter’s Sun SPARC and Solaris UltraSPARC servers as the platform to host its first Web site (www.isn.com). While NT admittedly didn’t have a strong presence in 1994, it did last year. It was then, once again, that ISN opted for Sun over NT to roll out its second site (www.firstauction.com), this time using 64-bit Solaris UltraSPARC servers.
With page views for both sites running slightly over 1 million per day and daily order transactions for both just under 1,000 per day, ISN needed a platform that could accommodate its rapid growth. “Unix has been great for us, and we’ve stuck with it for three reasons: scalability, manageability and flexibility,” says Brett Colbert, director of quality assurance and IS for ISN, in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Unix also excels from a systems administration perspective, says Colbert, who cites the availability of tools compared with what’s out there for NT. For example, if an IS administrator wants to pinpoint a directory on a loaded hard drive to free up space, it requires only a simple command in Unix, Colbert explains. On NT, however, the administrator must go into the NT Explorer utility to view the system’s entire configuration as the first route for figuring out which directories are most full.
Similarly, says Colbert, the operating systems offer striking differences in their approaches to remote access. The Telnet protocol built into Unix allows an administrator to easily tap into clients via remote dial-up, while NT requires a third-party program such as Symantec Corp.’s pcAnywhere or Compaq Computer Corp.’s Carbon Copy to control the system remotely, he says. “That’s important if you get paged at 3 a.m. and you want to just log in, take care of the problem and go back to sleep,” says Colbert. “It’s much more complicated with NT.”
Scaling new heights
The ability of Unix to scale reliably as business needs grow is also unmatched by NT, users say. For running SAP R/3 alone, Chevron Corp. is using about 150 HP-UX servers from Hewlett-Packard Co. Granted, Chevron is more of an ardent Unix believer than most. It has been running other large applications on Unix for several years, specifically for engineering and processing geologic data, says Bob Washa, technical manager for SAP R/3 implementation at Chevron, in San Ramon, Calif.
“We did not consider NT a viable option at that time. … HP [Unix] met all of Chevron’s requirements, and it’s continued to get stronger each year in functionality, scalability and performance,” he says. “We feel today it’s the only viable choice” for handling Chevron’s needs, he adds. At Chevron, that’s no small task. The company’s SAP installation has 7,000 users connected to three HP 9000 servers with one 350GB database, Washa says. In that configuration, R/3 produces an average of 12 million online transactions per month, covering all aspects of corporate finance.
For now, Skyway Freight Systems Inc. also views Unix as the platform of choice to run its mission-critical business applications, including Oracle Financials. The $160 million logistics and supply chain management company does, however, deploy a number of NT servers to operate desktop applications, according to Tom Duck, vice president of IS at Skyway, in Watsonville, Calif. “Today we wouldn’t be able to run our systems on NT–it’s not big enough,” says Duck. “We have applications that need to have high-end, fast servers,” and Unix systems can handle that need, he adds.
Skyway’s Unix spread includes HP 9000 systems used for distributed processing, which can be expanded from a single machine with less than 1GB of memory to systems containing six processors and 4GB of memory, Duck explains. “We can move our processes from one [Unix] server to another fairly easily and upgrade boxes easily,” says Duck, who says Skyway is committed to Unix for the foreseeable future.
“Five years from now we may have a different opinion, but I don’t think things will change radically,” Duck says. The mix of desktop and PC application servers deployed on NT 4.0, along with database servers and large-scale application servers standardized on HP-UX, “seems to be a good combination,” he adds.
Skyway maintains an electronic data interchange server that processes 5,000 files a day and Concerto, its desktop-based supply chain management suite of applications, processes around 4,000 new shipments every day on HP-UX. “There has not been a circumstance where we could not upgrade to cover the growth,” says Duck. “As the business grows, we add CPUs. … We cluster Unix boxes together so if there is a hardware failure, the other box in a cluster can pick up processes and run with it so you don’t have an interruption.” Skyway will add several more HP-UX servers this year, primarily for expanding Concerto’s functionality, he says.
With the expected roll-out of the 64-bit Intel Merced Unix architecture late next year, loyal followers say they’re covered for any kind of growth. Nokia Mobile Phones, which has used primarily HP servers for the last 15 years, is one company that is very interested in Merced. “That will be a consideration in sticking with Unix,” says Bob Schultz, an IT manager at Nokia, in San Diego. Nokia is running about 200 Unix servers (including some Solaris) for research and development, mechanical design, and engineering applications. The company also has about a half-dozen NT servers in play. But, says Schultz, “a lot of high-end tools are not available on NT,” specifically office automation applications.
“While some other operating systems are spending their time fixing bugs and problems, Unix has been working well and has been improved upon for over 25 years,” observes Mike Dotson, program manager for professional development programs at Florida Institute of Technology, in Orlando, which is running SCO Unix on Intel processors. Longevity has given Unix vendors “the luxury of spending their time making improvements,” Dotson says. “The Unix [community] will be the first to come out with the 64-bit operating system,” and that will allow for even greater scalability, speed and functionality, he says.
In many cases, companies are dependent on application availability to dictate their choice of operating system platform. Take SSM Health Care, in St. Louis, which owns and manages 24 entities, including 19 acute-care hospitals. SSM has approximately 40 HP-UX and Sun SPARC servers running its back-end applications for all clinical day-to-day patient care functions, including lab, radiology, admissions, discharge, census information and patient accounting. The company also uses some NT and Novell Inc. NetWare servers.
If given the choice, SSM officials say they’d probably stick with Unix. However, that will not be an option, since the health care provider is committed to rolling out Pathways Care Manager, software from HBO & Co., of Atlanta, which will only be available on NT 4.0. PCM allows SSM’s member hospitals to manage multiple contracts with different health care providers.
“It is being rolled out on NT simply because it was only available on NT,” says Jack Adams, director of operations for SSM. “I think we’d standardize on Unix if we had a choice, but unfortunately we don’t.” PCM will, however, interface to the HBOC Unix system, Adams adds.
Striving for diversity
With many ISVs strengthening their commitment to NT, some Unix shops are hedging their bets and picking vendors that embrace both disciplines. Magnet Interactive Communications has chosen Silicon Graphics Inc.’s Origin system as the primary platform for its Web site, application development and hosting environment. However, the multimedia company also maintains a heterogeneous operations center that includes Unix systems from Sun, along with PC-based Unix and NT servers. Like others, Magnet’s IT officials maintain that NT is limited in the amount of processors it can support and in bus speeds. But they have “some doubts as to our vendors’ commitment to the Unix way of things,” admits David Brookshire, director of IT at Magnet, in Washington.
“SGI is making a major play into the NT market later this year,” Brookshire says. With the price of high-end graphics PCs coming down, “SGI is having to focus on NT-based systems to compete with the likes of Intergraph. … We’re a little insecure along these avenues for obvious reasons, but that is why we remain a diverse environment.”
Microsoft is “doing a great job of convincing software vendors to port to NT–sometimes exclusively,” agrees Mike Prince, CIO of Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Inc., in Burlington, N.J. “So I think more and more, you’ll find an increase in the use of NT in the application server space.”
Before that can happen, though, NT will have to be weighed in the balance alongside Unix and prove its equal in all features–not just continue to excel in price/performance. And that may be a tough challenge, given the strategy of many Unix loyalists that “fewer is better.”
For example, Chevron’s Washa maintains it is ultimately less expensive to run fewer big Unix servers that can be integrated rather than lots of small, isolated NT machines. “Fewer is better in our book–they’re easier to manage and there’s a lower total cost of ownership associated with that [approach] in software maintenance and repairs,” he says.
Burlington Coat Factory’s Prince agrees. “Spreading enterprise processing to lots of little systems makes an administrative nightmare. You wind up with cross-dependencies in boxes,” he says. For example, one Unix box that provides file server capabilities might depend on another server for other functions, and they get to be interdependent. “Then it becomes hard to unravel the two when there is a problem,” Prince explains.
With an industry shift back to centralized computing, Microsoft faces the issue of being unable to build an NT system that’s big enough, says Prince. To compensate, you get into “racks of NT [servers], and administration of those racks is undesirable,” he explains. “We’re going back to a more centralized model.”
ISN’s Colbert also buys into the fewer-is-better model, noting that when ISN’s load grew significantly on the first auction site, “the beauty of the [Sun] box was we could pop in” six additional processors to double capacity.
Given NT’s limitations, Unix-based systems will remain the primary high-end server of choice for Magnet Interactive for the next few years, “but we’re not wearing blinders,” Brookfield says. With responsibility for managing more than 8,000 Unix servers in North America, DSP’s Lewitt is inclined to agree: “When [Unix] ceases to be the best product, it will be time for us to do something different.”
For that reason, DSP has also hedged its bets by committing to Digital, which offers both platforms. Leavitt says the company’s belief that both Unix and NT systems have a role to play means preserving his customers’ investments over the long term. “We’re committed [to Unix] for as long as being committed is the right thing to do in the market,” he says.
So, for the foreseeable future, many users are remaining faithful, but the message is clear: No one is such a Unix zealot that they can’t be tempted to convert. Burlington Coat Factory’s Prince says it won’t be a problem for him if the market changes and NT gains momentum for enterprise applications.
“The truth of the matter is, what everybody ought to be concerned about is what’s the best way to deploy computing power,” Prince says. “Today, that answer is clearly Unix. That’s not a Unix bigot’s opinion. That’s the opinion of a lot of CIOs. … It’s what works best that counts.”