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Dell considers Unix, Linux options

Dell is evaluating commercial versions of Unix for use on servers that will employ Intel's 64-bit chips, while Linux fits with the company's high-volume philosophy, Dell's CEO says.

NEW YORK--Dell Computer could take a big step toward Unix and away from Microsoft's back-end operating system when Intel's 64-bit processors arrive next year, chief executive Michael Dell said.

Dell is evaluating commercial versions of Unix for CNET's PC Expo coverage use on servers that will employ Intel's 64-bit chips, while Linux, the Unix-like operating system, fits with his company's high-volume philosophy, Michael Dell told CNET yesterday at an event related to the PC Expo trade show here.

Adding commercial Unix would make Dell less tightly wedded to Microsoft Windows and more like its top competitors, IBM, Compaq Computer, and Hewlett-Packard, all of which have their own line of Unix.

Microsoft isn't likely to be happy with the move, said International Data Corporation analyst Roger Kay. It shows that Dell, like other companies, is "chafing under the yoke of Microsoft" and that not everyone is convinced by marketing claims that the Windows NT operating system will sweep Unix aside.

"This indicates a change in philosophy," Kay said. "Dell has been the most dyed-in-the-wool Wintel supporter" of the major computer manufacturers and "has been pretty vocal in describing how the NT systems will cut into the Unix space."

The Unix move could strain Dell's relationship with Microsoft, Kay said. "Microsoft is a jealous mistress. They don't take kindly to any company that moves away from its platform."

Linux, an increasingly popular, open-source Unix clone, already has been embraced in varying degrees by Dell, IBM, Compaq, and HP. However, Linux doesn't support 64-bit chips and software to the same extent as commercial versions of Unix.

Solaris or Monterey-64
The two versions of Unix that Dell is evaluating are Sun Microsystems' Solaris and Monterey-64, a version of IBM's AIX merged with Santa Cruz Operation's UnixWare with other enhancements from Sequent, said Tekas Vakil, vice president of server marketing at Dell. "These two would have to be considered. Maybe even Linux," he said.

Including Unix in the lineup "is a natural thing to do," Vakil said. Intel's 64-bit chips "will squarely take us in the area where Unix is going to be predominant," he said.

The move to Unix is a logical extension of Dell's expansion from PCs to more complex servers and workstations, Kay said. "I see it as Dell continuing to move steadily up the food chain," he said.

Although most Unix companies have their versions up and running on a simulator of Intel's upcoming 64-bit chips, IBM and SCO hope that Monterey will be the dominant Unix system. Compaq will offer Monterey alongside its Tru64 Unix, but Sun and HP are steadfastly charting their own Unix course.

Dell: Linux could sell in volume
Speaking in an interview yesterday, Dell praised Linux and said the newly popular operating system matches the PC maker's high-volume sales model.

His remarks are significant in light of the close relationship Dell has historically maintained with Microsoft. Dell pre-installs Linux on workstations, servers, and business desktops--the only major PC maker to do so--but the company acknowledges that Linux sales so far are only a small fraction of its overall revenue.

Linux is popular in servers, where its Unix roots lie, but the fact that its source code is open and it has so much developer interest has helped it to spread to more ordinary desktops and even small gadgets. Several companies, including Corel and Caldera Systems, are working on making Linux easier to install and use for average computers.

Some analysts have said that adding Linux to a product line gives computer makers more leverage with Microsoft when negotiating how much they'll have to pay for Windows.

Dell emphasizes that Microsoft is still a huge part of its business and that the next version of Windows NT, called Windows 2000, will spur server sales even more. About 80 percent of its servers currently ship with Windows NT, Vakil said.

"We have not yet decided whether or not to do a major thrust in the Linux space," Vakil said.