Tag Archives: unix

Bell Labs goes looking for lost mojo

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First we’ll invent Unix, then we’ll figure out what to do with it.

When Silicon Valley was just pear orchards and a junior university, and a google was an obscure bit of math trivia, the wellspring of geek creativity was a continent away. Bell Labs sprawled across several campuses in northern New Jersey, filled with scientists and engineers who were paid to come up with interesting ideas and novel technology. Not necessarily marketable products, although it was correctly assumed that profits would follow somehow. Partly because the Bell System was a monopoly with profits more or less determined by regulators on a cost-plus basis, but mostly because Bell Labs delivered: the transistor, Unix, C, fiber optics, CDMA, TDMA and the list goes on.

The break up of AT&T thirty years ago brought an end to that cloistered world. Even as it was collecting Nobel prizes for past glories, Bell Labs was bouncing from one corporate parent to another, continually shedding talent and narrowing its scope, and finally ending up as a vestigal stump in an R&D backwater of Alcatel-Lucent.

It seems, though, that Alcatel-Lucent has woken up to the fact that the smart boys and girls are not just hanging out at the Jersey shore these days. Corporate CTO Marcus Weldon was also named president of Bell Labs in November and, according to LightReading, he’s going to try to lure them back…

Weldon will be looking to add some people to the Bell Labs team, though some will also be lost as part of [previously announced] layoffs. The R&D operation lost people to the web giants in Silicon Valley a decade ago. “We need to hire some people who would otherwise work there. We’ll be hiring some talent in that area.”

Weldon is promising to give Bell Labs interesting and important problems to solve. If he and his bosses have the wisdom and patience to let the answers fall naturally from those problems and not be driven by predetermined corporate roadmaps, some of the mojo might return.

I had a summer job at Bell Labs’ Piscataway campus in the 70s, but all I figured out was how to use this odd interconnecting network to log onto the system back in Berkeley and play Star Trek.

Pure Unix slides as offspring mature

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Big iron gunned down.

Recent obituaries for Unix have made for amusing reading. Two market analysis companies, Gartner and IDC, are predicting a long slide for the venerable operating system in the big iron side of the server market. Between 2012 and 2017, Gartner says that Unix’s share of the server market will slip from 16% to 9%, while IDC predicts revenues will drop from $10.2 billion to $8.7 billion over the same period.

The declining numbers – which are very plausible – aren’t a function of Unix’s appeal or utility, but of the types of machines it tends to run on and the people who maintain it. It’s the favored operating system for twentieth century vintage RISC-based processors, the kind that power purpose-built servers and big, special purpose systems, such as telecommunications networks. Although many of those platforms will prosper for a long time – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – the big middle of the server and, particularly, data center market has moved to Linux and x86-based processors.

Which isn’t exactly the same as killing off Unix. Linux is a not-too-distant Unix descendant that’s escaped from corporate stock pens into the open source wild. It spawned Android in the mobile world and might yet father Tizen and other lighter weight OSes that live happily on the power-stingy, RISC-based ARM chips that were designed for mobile devices. Which are now creeping into the data center market (frequently running an adapted Linux distro), where anything that holds down mounting energy bills is most welcome.

The real slide is in the value added by big IT consulting companies, like IBM or HP, that nurture in-house versions of Unix and maintain it on their clients’ systems. With Linux, particularly, settling down into a predictably evolving generic platform that can easily be installed and maintained by journeyman techs, the need for high-priced specialised talent and software will continue to fall. Big iron Unix won’t disappear completely – not every system or application can be supported by a generic platform – but it’ll become a niche player.

And if you want to continue to enjoy the rock solid thrill of Unix, get a Mac.