Pure Unix slides as offspring mature

21 September 2013 by Steve Blum
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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.