Doug Burak calls his two midrange Unix servers the "cornerstone of the computer services" at Bucks County Community College (BCCC), where he is IT security director.
Ken Edgecombe claims throughput has improved fivefold since upgrading to new midrange Unix servers at the High Performance Computing [HPC] Virtual Laboratory in Ontario, Canada, where he is director.
But the midrange Unix market is getting squished like a sandwich from increasingly affordable mainframes from above and increasingly robust x86 systems from below. IBM's smaller mainframe now starts at $100,000, while many Unix systems cost at least twice as much. Meanwhile, x86 systems are developing multicore processors to compete with the number-crunching computing that Unix has been known for.
Experts feel that proprietary Unix servers will continue to lose market share. But with such a large customer base, they won't be disappearing any time soon, mainly because of their benefit running mission-critical and legacy applications, as well as within niche markets, like HPC.
The midrange systems have processors, like IBM's Power, Sun Microsystem Inc.'s UltraSPARC, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s (HP) PA-RISC and Intel Corp.'s Itanium, and run on platforms, like AIX, Solaris and HP-UX. Revenue in recent fiscal quarters has remained mostly stagnant, seeing a small 1.6% decline in the second quarter this year compared to the same period last year, according to a report from Framingham, Mass.-based research firm IDC. But the Unix server market sees more than $18 billion in revenue per year and accounts for more than one-third of all server spending.
"I think there will continue to be a slow, steady decline [of the Unix market]," said Tom Kucharvy, president of Boston-based analyst and research company Summit Strategies,. "Not a disappearance, by any means. That's decades away. Installed bases stick around for a long time. It's going to take years before Windows or Linux is going to come up to address those workloads."
RISC stands for reduced instruction set computer and describes a processor architecture that performs fewer types of computer operations, but at faster speeds. With the exception of Itanium, midrange Unix systems are based on the RISC architecture, so the survival of the systems is somewhat dependent on whether the RISC architecture can stay relevant to users.
"I don't see them going away anytime soon. RISC still has it all over x86 in my mind. I'm not trying to denigrate the x86 technology. It's incredibly flexible at the clustered space," said Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT, a Hayward, Calif., analyst firm, in referring to the scale-out expansion of x86-centered data center. "But if you're looking for standalone systems that really deliver really high-end enterprise performance, I think RISC-based systems really set the gold standard."
The data center that Burak helps run has about 40 servers. All but a few are HP servers, with the backbone being two HP 9000 RISC-based servers, the rp5405 and rp2405 running HP-UX. The other systems are x86 models running Linux and Windows on Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s (AMD) Opteron and Intel's Xeon chips.
The Windows boxes do file and print sharing, and Linux boxes run the school's Web presence. But Burak said the rp5405 runs the bulk of the school's operations, with the rp2405 serving as a test environment and backup to the rp5405. The rp5405 is a rack-mounted server with two PA-8700 processors that runs enterprise resource planning (ERP) software from Fairfax, Va.-based Datatel Inc.. The software is specifically designed for higher education and runs registration, billing, payroll, financial aid and other school functions.
Burak said BCCC runs Datatel on the rp5405 because it migrated the applications from an older RISC-based Unix system, so the transition was easier. It did look at running the applications on Itanium 2-based systems, but at the time Datatel wasn't certified on that hardware. So it became a case of sticking with Unix because switching applications would have been burdensome.
"That's a real driving consideration," said Clay Ryder, president of Union City, Calif.-based analyst firm Sageza Group. "When people bought their system, they bought it because a certain application ran on it. These systems were bought for the applications. If the ISV [independent software vendor] says we support Solaris and we support AIX, and you want that application, those are your choices."
Burak added that because the rp5405 runs the school's most important applications and does it with little downtime, he likens the machine to a smaller version of the mainframe.
"I view it that way, as the old mainframe environment," he said. "You've got the workhorses in there. They're powerful. A little expensive, but they do the job, you know?"
Hold on a second, said Joe Clabby, president of Yarmouth, Maine-based Clabby Analytics. Midrange Unix systems may be known for their reliability, availability and security (RAS) features, but they're no mainframe.
"Can we really find one place where it is mainframe-caliber?" he said. "If you're going to look at meantime between failures [MTBF], I'm sure the mainframe kicks its butt."
But Clabby and Burak do have something to agree on: support. Data centers pick vendor-supported Unix machines and operating systems (OS) over Linux because the support is there. With Linux, the developer-friendly community is huge and the OS is maturing quickly as a result. But Clabby said the support is yet to reach the same level as Unix.
"Support is a big deal," Burak said. "I'm responsible for all the servers at the institution, and I've done what I could to migrate to HP, because then I can put them all under one support umbrella."
Edgecombe, from the HPC Virtual Laboratory, said its data center has six Sun Fire 25K and three Sun Fire 15K machines running Solaris that provide HPC support for five Canadian colleges and universities, which include about 140 different research groups. HPC has become a niche for midrange Unix systems, topping benchmark lists by third-party organizations, such as the Transaction Processing Performance Council (TPC).
The lab became a Sun shop back in 1998 after receiving offers from Sun and other HPC giants, such as IBM, Cray Inc., and Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI). Edgecombe said it chose Sun's Unix systems because of the total cost of ownership (TCO), "not just the cost of purchasing the CPUs and storage, but also maintenance costs, power costs."
Edgecombe said the lab has researchers in a wide variety of disciplines -- including economics, psychology and chemistry -- and the Solaris-based Unix machines best fit what they all might need. When deciding to upgrade the hardware last year, which Edgecombe said led to a fivefold performance improvement, the lab decided to stick with Solaris and Unix, because that's what researchers knew.
In that respect, the programs researchers were working with were like legacy applications suited best for the Solaris-based Unix platform.
"It's the total package, essentially," he said. "The researchers didn't have to change. They're all familiar with the Solaris environment, so familiarity was a good thing to have."
"There are a lot of angles that people are using Unix for that are not necessarily obvious," said Mel Lewandowski, head of marketing for HP Unix servers, referring to the HPC niche. "It may not be a growth market, but it's very exciting as a technology."
That may be, but midrange Unix systems have decreased in popularity, and there are plenty of theories as to why it's in decline.
"I do think that so many folks are focused on Windows and Linux that they don't see Unix as being approachable," said Chuck Bryan, head of marketing for ISVs on IBM's System p. "They assume there is user complexity or a price point that is out of reach."
King added that some of it comes down to education. He said he has heard stories of companies hiring chief information officers (CIOs) who are relatively young and maybe only on their second or third job. Then they announce a migration project from mainframes or proprietary Unix servers to the x86 architecture.
"When queried, it was because the x86 architecture was what they learned and knew best," King said.
Vendors are working to advance the technology of the processors running Unix workloads. IBM's Power processor has virtualization features built into the hardware, eliminating the need for a software layer. That's something x86 chips don't have yet, Ryder said. Sun's UltraSPARC T1 chip, meanwhile, has up to eight cores per chip with four threads per core, an architecture that Sun claims is like a rack of servers on one chip.
But Ryder thinks the rapidly advancing chip technology could be contributing to the Unix decline.
"As servers have gotten more powerful, the needs of the market haven't necessarily kept up with them," he said. "These are the issues those guys are facing. The capability of the run-of-the-mill stuff has gotten so good that a lot of people don't need that extra oomph."
Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Mark Fontecchio, News Writer