Server OS Landscape Rolls With the Punches

by Paul Rubens

These days, the UNIX and Linux server OS landscape would play on the big screen as well as a combination Jackie Chan, James Bond, and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure movie all rolled together.

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The world of UNIX and Linux server operating systems right now seems like a combination of a Jackie Chang movie, the latest James Bond and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure all rolled into one. Boring and predictable it most certainly isn't, and that's not good news for enterprises that want a background of stability and certainty when choosing a server OS to power their business.

If you're a Sun UNIX user you know what I'm talking about -- the OpenSolaris project recently evaporated after months of uncertainty, to be replaced, perhaps, by something based on the Ilumos project like the OpenIndiana spork. Solaris users haven't had as rude a shock: Their enterprise OS hasn't actually disappeared, but they have had to come to terms with the fact that the UNIX now belongs to Oracle and it is being developed along lines very different from the ones it had when Sun was at the helm.

You also know what I am talking about if you've come into contact Novell, the company behind Suse Linux Enterprise Server (SLES), one of the two leading open source server distributions. It's a fine server OS, to be sure, but being owned by the chaotic Novell has cast a long shadow over the distro, even if Microsoft has been pumping money into the business by subsidizing its customers to use it. SLES users were plunged into uncertainty at the beginning of the summer when Novell effectively put itself up for sale, and quite who the owner of Novell's Linux business will be in a few months time is anyone's guess.

In fact, things may have got a little clearer in the recent days, with the Wall Street Journal reporting that SLES and the rest of Novell's Linux business is about to be bought by VMware. If VMware does buy Novell, it will be able to offer an optimized stack of its own software, notably SLES virtualized on VMware's software, to compete with Red Hat on KVM and Windows Server on Hyper-V. That may make sense for VMware, but whether it is in SLES customers' interest is another matter entirely. Microsoft and Novell have an agreement to work on interoperation between their two operating systems, and a number of SLES customers are Windows shops dipping their toes into the Linux waters at Microsoft's expense. What will happen to this agreement if VMware buys SLES is far from clear.

At least if you are a Red Hat shop you can be secure in the knowledge that you are running the No. 1 open source server OS -- the IBM of Linux, if you like -- from a stable independent company. Heck, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is so respectable that the mighty Oracle uses it as the basis for its own Linux offering.

But for how long? Oracle has decided to ditch Red Hat compatibility in its Oracle Linux product, announcing the Oracle Unbreakable Kernel for Oracle Linux at Oracle OpenWorld last week. The company describes it as a "fast, modern, reliable kernel that is optimized for Oracle software and hardware," going on to promise that the new kernel will offer a "75 percent performance gain demonstrated in OLTP performance tests over a Red Hat Compatible Kernel, 200 percent speedup of Infiniband messaging; and 137 percent faster solid state disk access." (The company isn't making a complete break with Red Hat compatibility; however, customers can choose to run the Red Hat Compatible Kernel if they prefer strict Red Hat compatibility over a system optimized to run Oracle and other enterprise software, Oracle says.)

If VMware does buy Novell's Linux business, and it's still an "if" for the moment, then Red Hat is going to stand out as a minnow among giants in the server OS space going forward. Consider this: Solaris is now part of the $140 billion Oracle Corporation, while SLES would be part of the $36 billion VMware. As for Windows, AIX and HP-UX, they are owned by corporations worth $220 billion (Microsoft) $166 billion (IBM) and $90 billion (HP) respectively. Red Hat really is the odd one out, as the $7 billion weakling. When you look at it in those terms, you realize there's no way of knowing who will own the company in 12 months time: In this Wild West of a market, small companies disappear.

Which brings us to IBM, HP and Microsoft. They may be big, boring and predictable, but given all that's going on in the enterprise operating systems world right now, big, boring and predictable must sound pretty good to many potential customers.

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Sep 21st 2010
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