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New Unix is no two-bit act

The main supporters of a new 64-bit version of Unix may finally be getting their acts together.

The main supporters of a new 64-bit version of Unix may finally be getting their acts together.

Within the next two years, Hewlett-Packard (HWP) and the Santa Cruz Operation (SCOC) will try to dispel the idea that Unix is going to be shoved into a high-end niche by Windows NT.

Their plan for doing that is to present a 64-bit OS that will eliminate the confusion caused by the existing candy-shop array of different Unix flavors from vendors that aren't necessarily all working together toward common goals.

The first salvo will come this month when HP and SCO publish a final set programming interfaces code-named Lodi for a 64-bit Unix operating system effort known as 3DA. The new OS will combine SCO's OpenServer and UnixWare operating systems with HP's HP-UX OS platform.

A 64-bit operating system can hold larger chunks of data in memory, create larger files, and work with more files than the current generation of 32-bit systems. The 64-bit market will initially cater to high-end companies such as petroleum companies that use files to store regional soil topologies.

SCO and HP say they launched the effort to try to bring some sense of order to the chaos of the Unix market for Intel-based systems. As it stands now, Unix developers have to either choose to limit themselves to one variant or another--Sun Microsystems' Solaris vs. IBM's AIX for instance--or undertake the hassle and headache of rewriting their applications for several flavors of Unix.

While developers and customers have complained about this chaos for years, it is now critical for the industry to address because NT is breathing down the necks of Unix vendors. Makers of workstations and servers running Unix have enjoyed huge profit margins for their systems, providing little motivation to change.

But now Windows NT is ramping up to handle a similar load to its Unix counterparts. That means a threat to both the Unix hardware and software vendors.

Hardware vendors including Data General, Pyramid, and NCR have already signed on to the ambitious plan. HP and SCO hopes this will ensure a significant adoption rate by users.

"There's a lot of potential there," said Jean Bozman, an analyst with International Data Corporation. "If it works the way they want it to work, it will have a major impact on the industry."

The release of 3DA is expected to coincide with the introduction of the Merced microprocessor from Intel, due in late 1998. The Merced chip combines the Precision Architecture technology from HP's RISC machines with Intel's x86 microprocessor architecture and is expected to run both Unix and Windows NT applications. A Merced version of 3DA will shortly follow.

The combination of the 64-bit chip and the 64-bit OS should go far to move the industry from a 32-bit to a 64-bit standard, all running on Intel not RISC chips. According to 1995 IDC figures, the Unix-on-Intel market accounted for 45 percent of the 546,000 Unix server operating systems sold for the year.

"If this goes well, it should accelerate the trend toward Unix on Intel," Bozman said. "Unix and RISC have gone together in recent years and have practically become synonymous, especially with large systems. If the HP/SCO collaboration goes off as well as it might, more people might use Unix on Intel for enterprise systems."

At face value, merging three popular Unix platforms into one code base seems like a good move for the industry. But when the topic is Unix, pitfalls are inevitable.

Indeed, the 3DA effort is fraught with peril: HP and SCO are working together, as well as continuing their own 32-bit OS strategies for users who don't want to move to a 64-bit architecture.

Second, Unix-on-RISC vendors will also unveil 64-bit operating systems in the same time frame. Vendors such as Digital Equipment and Silicon Graphics have already taken the 64-bit plunge.

Third, the remaining player in the Unix-on-Intel market, Sun Microsystems, has not endorsed the 3DA effort for its Solaris OS and sees nothing but trouble in the HP/SCO relationship.

"I don't know where they are going with this thing," said Kuljeet Kalkat, group manager for Solaris. "There are too many forces and too many cooks here."

Kalkat questioned whether the 3DA effort will have the "Unix 98" branding, the next standard the Open Group will release for brands of Unix. The Unix 98 branding is expected to be released in March. An HP spokesman said the HP/SCO effort will be compliant with Unix branding.

Others anticipate a series of delays as the two companies start to merge three operating systems into one, a move that may only exacerbate relationships with third parties such as NCR that have signed on to use the code base in their version of Unix. The large number of APIs necessary for the new environment has also left questions, as the 3DA architecture purports to include clustering, management, administration, and other tools.

But Joanne Newbauer, partner marketing manager for HP's Open Systems software division, said the end result will be worth it. "I think you're going to see a major change in the computer market with the Merced chip and 3DA," she said.

Scott McGregor, senior vice president of products, says industry support for the 3DA effort will be the best indicator of success. "The Merced 3DA product--because of its performance and support for large data units--will be attractive to a certain part of the market: the high end," he said. "You're going to be able to buy this stuff from a lot of different companies. The difference between these systems will go down dramatically."

Analysts warn that the two Unix giants will need to tread lightly or risk losing users that already feel the tug of Windows NT and may grow tired of "3DA" and "Merced" talk with no products behind it.

"They all have to handle it in an optimal fashion in order to maintain their installed base," noted IDC's Bozman.

In a perfect Unix world, the 3DA effort will be released on time and will compete only with Sun's Solaris platform for Unix business on the Merced chip. Then the remaining RISC players, including Sun's Solaris for the Sparc platform, IBM's AIX, and Digital Unix, can fight it out for what is expected to be a shrinking piece of the OS pie.

Proponents also hope that 3DA can drive a volume Unix operating system into the midrange server OS marketplace that Microsoft covets and halt the swelling Windows NT ranks.