Intel pushing unified Unix

The chipmaker works to establish a common standard among Unix's different versions, laying groundwork for its high-end chip technologies.

Brooke Crothers
Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
3 min read
Intel will work toward establishing common standards among different versions of the Unix operating system, a critical requirement as the company lays the groundwork for its high-end server and next-generation 64-bit Merced technologies.

This also points to a rift between Microsoft and Intel in the high-end computing space, where Windows NT isn't the only operating system in town--as it is for the desktop and notebook PC markets--and, in some important respects, is bested by Unix.

In the creation of a "unified Unix," Intel will work with Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Sun Microsystems, and SCO, among other companies.

The effort shows that Unix continues to play a critical role in the high-end corporate "enterprise" market, where Microsoft is still playing catch-up in areas such as "scalability," an important metric for determining the stability of operating systems as they take on larger data loads. The software giant has been pushing its Windows NT operating system for this lucrative segment.

"Everybody understands that Microsoft might be lagging to get [Windows] NT to the level that higher end enterprise customers are really looking for," said Dan Dolan, an analyst at market researcher Dataquest. "Microsoft needs to turn up the fire to get [a] true 64 bit [operating system]. There's gotta be an OS for the higher end there in meantime," he said.

Sun Microsystems continues to fare well in the Unix market where it sells many sophisticated high-end systems, emblematic of the operating system's continued popularity in these environments.

"In terms of trends...Unix is still growing," said Jean Bozman, a software analyst at International Data Corp. (IDC), speaking earlier this summer when it released a report on the server operating system market. "Over time we expect to see more Unix growth in the midrange and high-end markets." Windows NT will continue to win converts at the "departmental" level at corporations, where its low price and relatively easy installation matter most, according to IDC.

At the Intel Developer Forum, John Miner, Intel vice president and general manager of the Enterprise Server Group, talked about a strategy aimed at "accelerating the deployment of Unix on Intel-based servers as an important element in the growth of the standard high-volume server model."

Intel's standard high-volume server (SHVS) strategy aims to standardize server-related technologies, which, ideally, drives down costs.

"Intel is joining forces with leading Unix OS vendors and peripheral hardware manufacturers on a mission to overcome the current interoperability challenges faced by companies delivering devices to the Unix market," Intel said in a prepared statement.

Accordingly, it is crucial for Intel resolve compatibility issues since Unix commanded the largest revenue stream for server operating systems in 1997, according to the IDC report. Total revenue from sales of server operating system software was $5.6 billion, according to the report. Various Unix variants grabbed the largest chunk of the pie, representing 45.8 percent of total revenue. Microsoft's NT represented 34.2 percent of the total market while Novell's NetWare sales came in at 19 percent of the market.

The Intel initiative is specifically focused on drivers--the software that enables a computer to work with a particular device, such as a printer or a disk drive. This particular standard which Intel is crafting along with the other major computer players is called Uniform Driver Interface (UDI) specification.

Intel said: "The goal of this effort is to create an environment where vendors can create and maintain a single-device driver... that will work across multiple versions of Unix on [Intel architecture], thus reducing development costs and enabling developers to focus on more valuable product features."

Intel said it plans to devote "engineering resources" to work with the group to complete a UDI framework.

Apparently, the idea is not new to Intel. According to Oracle's Larry Ellison, now-retired CEO Andy Grove was the driving force behind earlier efforts to amalgamate Unix operating system variants into a single version. Grove was involved in these efforts as recently as two years ago, News.com previously reported.

Grove was motivated by his desire to avoid relying on Microsoft, Ellison said, but the plan failed because the major players like IBM and Sun did not want to give up the competitive advantage of being able to sell their own "flavor" of Unix. In his view, a unified Unix did came about because it was not a matter of "life and death" for the key players.

Ellison, of course, has been a outspoken foe of Microsoft. Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.