Is UNIX dead?

Linux supporters have for years touted the benefits of Linux over UNIX, yet many in enterprise IT still lean on the trusted old operating system for some of the most business-critical workloads. Is that still the case? Read about the latest research from Gabriel Consulting and prepare to be enlightened.

Commercial enterprise UNIX today reminds me of vintage clothes and furniture.

Just when you think certain things have become passé in favor of newer more modern things, they are somehow revived and come back into fashion.

For the 11 years that I've been writing about enterprise IT, every once in a while a new rumor or expert opinion would surface declaring that UNIX was finally dead due to (take your choice) cheap x86 hardware, the continuing development of Linux for the enterprise or even due to the broadening power and features of Microsoft's Windows operating systems.

Yet despite the fact that the alleged decline of UNIX keeps coming up, it's still breathing. It's still widely used in enterprise data centers. It's still running huge, complex, key applications for companies that absolutely, positively need those apps to run.

And despite the ongoing rumors of its imminent death, its use is still growing, according to new research from Gabriel Consulting Group Inc.

So what's going on with UNIX in the summer of 2011?

"We believe and always have believed that the UNIX market is important, although it doesn't get the attention" of other technologies, says Dan Olds, principal analyst with Gabriel Consulting. "This is a large market and it's not something that will go away anytime soon."

For the last five years, Olds has been conducting annual surveys on enterprise UNIX usage and the data doesn't lie, he says. "Some people in the industry think that commercial UNIX isn't relevant anymore, but look at what I'm finding out from those who are using it."

Out of 306 enterprise IT respondent s in the latest study, released in June, 89 percent agreed that UNIX systems are strategic in their IT systems, according to Olds. Those figures, representing the fourth quarter of 2010 through the first quarter of 2011, compare with 91 percent for the same period one year ago.

And out of those 306 users, a combined 52 percent say that at least 75 percent of those UNIX workloads are mission critical to their businesses, according to the data. Another 26 percent say that at least half of their UNIX workloads are mission critical. That's a lot of satisfied, confident users, Olds says.

"Those users are saying 'we have to have it,'" Olds says. "And it's not surprising. What's happened in the past decade is that when technology really took off in the 1990s, UNIX systems were really the only game in town" for enterprise users. "It was the only operating system that was Web-enabled and that could be scalable and powerful enough to do what businesses needed to do."

Then came more progress and choices in the world of computer operating systems, he says.

"What changed is that Microsoft Windows and Linux got a lot better and a lot more stable and x86 systems got better" for use by businesses. "They became the 'good enough' and low-cost alternatives to get things done."

Slideshow: The Oddest Places to Find Linux

The thing is, though, that while many of those x86 systems today run a lot of the same applications as the mission-critical UNIX systems have always run, "there are still some things that commercial UNIX does that they just can't match," Olds says. That includes things like vertical scalability and high-availability for systems and workloads.

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