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PC Week Commentary

Wide Angle
Unix competition has Sun on the run
By John Taschek
August 9, 1999 9:00 AM ET

What do you get when you toss three losing operating systems into one huge pot? A great idea, believe it or not, and that's what IBM's Project Monterey is looking to be.

SCO, IBM and Sequent established Monterey to create a kick-butt, high-end, Intel-based version of Unix to power data centers into the next century. But what a motley crew it is, although money-losing Sequent's story was so strong that IBM paid more $800 million for the company--and it wasn't even an Internet business.

Let's look at the facts. SCO's UnixWare had some low-end success, and it had a good story to tell in the midrange Intel market. But, for all practical purposes, it had been going absolutely nowhere because it was being unequivocally killed by Linux.

IBM's AIX, meanwhile, had been the status quo for so many years that even IBM's e-business marketing campaign couldn't make it interesting. And then there's Sequent, a master of high-performance computing that was dying despite being in the right place at the right time with the right technology in Dynix/ptx.

But these ragtag operating systems all have something outstanding. SCO has a distribution channel. Sequent has incredible technology, most notably its partitioning, multipath I/O and support for Non-Uniform Memory Access, which could make Monterey, on paper, the most powerful flavor of Unix on the planet when it ships in 2001. In addition, IBM has a huge global services division and the global presence to go along with it.

IBM also has investments--I mean an interest--in Linux, and it could potentially integrate parts of the highly scalable Extreme architecture into Monterey.

The big holdup is the lack of Monterey applications. Although IBM's success rate here is abysmal, it may still do OK. Sequent CEO Casey Powell, whom I interviewed last week, said that his company, SCO and IBM will modify their current 32-bit Unix flavors so that there is a migration path to Monterey.

But I wonder how committed companies would be to start upgrading their data centers just for the chance to run the 64-bit Monterey. I mean, 64-bit computing has not been proven yet, except in the Nintendo 64 market. And if companies wanted 64-bit computing, why wouldn't they opt for Solaris, which is on a faster path to high-end Unix? But Sun has problems with Solaris. The company, in fact, is desperate, given its latest actions. It's being attacked in the low-end Intel market by Linux, and it's being threatened at the high end by Monterey, which, of course, isn't ready. But you have to plan ahead.

How desperate is Sun? You might remember that Sun is now giving away Solaris to universities, whereas it used to charge students an arm and a leg for it. Sun is also toying with the idea of releasing a Linux emulator, which will make Linux apps run on Solaris boxes. In this case, "toying" is the key word, as the technology, called lxrun, was initially developed by SCO to run Quake. And now, what's this? Sun is begging IBM to preload Solaris on its Netfinity servers. Add it all up, and Sun's Intel presence is all but dead, which is very serious indeed.

Big question: Who's going to consider Monterey, anyway? John Taschek can be reached at john_taschek@zd.com.

See more Wide Angle columns.

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