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No Unix unity for now

Fragmentation within the Unix market is confusing to customers and could make it easier for them choose another OS, such as Windows NT.

So much for Unix unification.

The evolution of the chipmaking industry toward a 64-bit Merced "nirvana" spearheaded by Intel's development was thought to offer the majority of Unix-based software and systems firms the opportunity--or "out," depending on who you talk to--to unite around a common hardware set.

Instead, systems vendors and their various operating system (OS) divisions or counterparts have been choosing sides willy-nilly. The latest scoreboard shows Digital Equipment partnering with Sequent Computer Systems, Sun Microsystems allying with NCR, and the Santa Cruz Operation cuddling up with many of the dominant PC server vendors, including recovered-systems giant Data General.

Some could argue that unification has never been part and parcel of the Unix-based OS market. But others are quick to note that fragmentation has led to the perception that Unix-based companies offer a confusing array of technologies to customers, making it easier for them to choose another OS, such as Microsoft's Windows NT.

To understand the current state of Unix, one must understand that different OS "flavors" run on either Intel-based server systems or RISC-based systems, usually offered by the same companies selling the OS software. Essentially, there are two markets: the Intel-based Unix market is dominated by SCO, while Sun holds the lead in the Unix-on-RISC market.

And that does not include the millions of copies of Linux, a Unix variant, that are being used. That OS is offered for free over the Net, but there is some question as to how many corporations want to standardize on software that lacks support from a particular organization.

Sun is also plugging away on an Intel-based strategy for its Solaris version of Unix, however, hoping to unseat SCO as the leader. And Digital executives seem to think they have an opening they can exploit, driving the company's version of Unix into 64-bit Intel-based systems as well as the company's own Alpha-based machines.

SCO announced a new version of its UnixWare OS today, with different versions targeting specific markets, capping a series of steps that included a curiously underwhelming partnership with Hewlett-Packard and a drive to move upstream to handle larger computing tasks.

"Now we can make a slow, steady push into the enterprise," noted Doug Michels, SCO chief technology officer. "We've never been able to go there because Intel couldn't go there."

The debut of the 64-bit Merced chip in 1999 is expected to coincide with higher growth in the Unix-on-Intel market, a niche that has been dominated by SCO but has not been associated with the high volumes typically found in the PC industry.

That is not to say there hasn't been some merging of the minds in Unix market. Both NCR and Data General have decided to discontinue development on their own Unix variants.

Why are 64-bits important? The technology allows users and systems to handle larger chunks of data at one time, speeding access to complex database information, for example.

We also can't forget HP, the systems giant that continues to vie with Sun for supremacy in the Unix-on-RISC systems market with HP-UX. The systems giant also is preparing a migration strategy so that customers can run a version of HP-UX on Intel-based servers running Merced, even though they will retain a version to run on its own PA-RISC system architecture.

What is driving further confusion during a period that could be noted for a timely confluence of events is each OS provider's insistence that it is their implementation of Unix that will carry the day going forward. Predictable? Yes. Good for the Unix industry? Probably not, given the growth rate of Windows NT in corporations.

Scott McNealy, chief executive of Sun and poster child for the staunch Unix community, likens the current operating system choices to "Coke vs. Pepsi," with his company's Solaris being the counterpoint to Microsoft's NT.

Robert Palmer, chief executive of Digital, said recently that the move toward the Merced chip and his company's merger with Compaq Computer offers the "best opportunity" for his company's Digital Unix "flavor" to become the de facto standard for industry.

No wonder Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates is more than happy to watch the Unix crowd sort themselves out while he counts his NT cash: "From Microsoft's perspective, the more flavors of Unix there are, the better," he said at an event last week.

Reuters contributed to this report.