Expanding OS wars target developers

During the past few months, the operating system world has been a veritable beehive of activity. IBM shows Linux running on a System/390 mainframe; Sun Microsystems discloses plans to distribute Solaris without charge; Sun details plans for running Linux on Sparc-based systems; and, finally, Microsoft ships the long-anticipated Windows 2000 follow-on to NT.

Yet at the same time, many experts are saying that the importance of the OS to application developers is declining quickly. What is an IT development manager to do?

Today, Microsoft still controls the desktop by a long shot. However, some analysts see its grip slipping ever so slightly as Linux evolves from "geek" toy to a user-friendly OS that has gained the attention of corporate developers. But the struggle for server-side platform supremacy is far from over. The Unix implementations of top manufacturers like Sun, IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co., and Microsoft's Windows NT are the primary combatants in that arena, but several observers say that as Linux gains corporate support and momentum, the open source OS can fast become a real contender. In fact, according to a survey by International Data Corp. (IDC), a Framingham, Mass.-based market researcher, Linux accounted for 25% of all server OS units shipped last year, while NT accounted for 38%.

For Linux to grow significantly at the server level, more applications must be written. In many cases, software suppliers are expressing interest in porting applications and management systems to Linux. However, Linux-based applications remain scarce, and few observers expect the numbers to grow significantly in the short term.

What may be lost in the hoopla of this horse race is this: Platform development decisions are no longer purely technological. More than ever before, industry observers believe these choices are being driven by business requirements — e-business requirements, more often than not. And from a development perspective, the platform itself is less important than a developer's ability to serve enterprise customers in a Web-centric, heterogeneous world.

"E-business is changing things," said Dennis Gaughan, senior analyst at AMR Research, Boston. "It's driving platform decisions. People care about solving problems. They say, ‘This is the functionality I need. I don't care about the box, just get me up and running before my competitor Amazons me.' There's definitely a shift there. People are saying, 'Show me the business needs, and then let's pick the tool or platform that's going to fulfill them - quickly, cheaply and effectively.'"

"One important area for most people right now is anticipating and allowing for the Web, especially when you're selling development tools," noted Arthur Hicken, executive vice president at ParaSoft Corp., a Monrovia, Calif.-based development tool vendor. "For us, when you look at the Web and you see how much of it is actually run on Linux, we have to say Linux is very important to us. Apache on Linux is a cheap and easy way to get yourself on the Web and it's pretty robust."

"Most of the uptake we see in Linux was initially driven by Web servers and then behind that mail servers," added Carl Zetie, an analyst at Giga Information Group, Cambridge, Mass. "The next wave was people showing interest in the platform as a database server. We're only just starting to see application servers being ported to Linux. Given the emphasis on the app server as a platform, you won't see much app development targeting Linux until the app servers themselves are proven. It'll happen, but it'll take time."

Said Larry Perlstein, research director at GartnerGroup, Stamford, Conn., "The nice thing about the Web is that it takes a relatively generic platform and makes it available to a very wide range of applications."

IBM blesses Linux

The e-business angle seems to be the right one for Linux, which gained some significant endorsements at February's LinuxWorld trade show held in New York City. Perhaps most impressive was the level of support from IBM. During his keynote speech, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, Big Blue's vice president of technology and strategy, as well as a key developer of the firm's Internet strategy, described Linux as "the major ingredient" of IBM's e-business strategy. The freeware Unix implementation will, he said, "facilitate all the innovation over the next few years.

"What made the Internet happen," Wladawsky-Berger said, "was standards. HTTP, HTML and open standards is what will make e-business happen." IBM's vision for e-business embraces the Web, XML, Java and Linux, he added. The presentation included Linux running on a high-end IBM System 390 mainframe, probably the highest-end end system to host Linux to date.

"If IBM ever gets its System 390 Internet story together and convinces people that it is a viable e-commerce platform, they might start seeing some renewed business," said Gartner's Perlstein. "There are lots of difficulties in managing 500- and 600-machine server farms. At some point in the next couple of years, when all the dot.coms and the big Web server sites step back and look at what they've spent on this stuff, they are going to start to question whether it was a worthwhile investment. When they look at their ROI, they're going to realize that they need to centralize some of this functionality. And a mainframe is not necessarily the worst place they could go to do it."

Along with IBM, other big name computer makers have started supporting the Linux revolution. For example, Dell Computer Corp., Round Rock, Texas, has outlined plans to offer Linux factory-installed on its PCs and laptop computers. Compaq Computer Corp., Houston, unveiled a set of Linux development tools at the LinuxWorld trade show that will be distributed without charge. And Compaq debuted a support program for Linux developers.

Even Sun has brought out some Linux-based products: The Sun-Netscape alliance recently started shipping messaging and Web server software for the OS, and unveiled a Java 2 virtual machine for Linux. In addition, Sun signed an agreement that calls for Trademark Computer Products, a unit of San Jose, Calif.-based Bell Microproducts, to build Sparcengine Ultra AX-based systems running the Red Hat 6.1 Linux implementation.

Some observers have called Sun's support for Linux a bit schizophrenic because Solaris and other flavors of Unix compete on the server side. Sun officials take pains to differentiate the established Solaris OS from what they have called unproven Linux technology, say observers. Yet observers believe building apps on Linux-based Sparc systems could hurt sales of Solaris-based systems, Sun's bread and butter.

Early this year, Sun unveiled a major new version of Solaris that appears to target Linux, as well as Windows NT and other Unix implementations. At a press conference to explain the Solaris strategy, Sun executives claimed that Version 8.0 of Solaris adds more than 200 improvements to earlier versions, with many of the updates aimed directly at improving Internet performance. The focus of the new Solaris version, said Sun President and COO Edward Zander, is continuous availability and scalability, important qualities for Web and e-commerce environments. Sun's decision to ship Solaris 8 for no charge for use on systems running eight or fewer processors, and its promise to provide access to the Solaris source code, is widely seen as a competitive response to the Linux distribution model.

Sun also takes advantage of its Java ownership to position its hardware as a platform for running Java-based apps - whether the Sparc systems are running Linux or Solaris. "Sun's emphasis is on the server now, without a doubt," said Giga's Zetie. "The path to portability with Java on the server is about standardizing to EJBs. Sun wants to take it a step further - to standardize the J2EE APIs as an entire platform. If they can manage to standardize that, it's almost a substitute for the [OS]."

When J2EE is supported everywhere, said Zetie, IT development decisions are less about the capabilities of the OS, and more about how well it performs as a platform for running a J2EE app server. "Certainly, Sun believes that it can build hardware and middleware that is a better platform for J2EE than its rivals can," he noted. "And it has an army of vendors, which it pits against the army of Wintel vendors."

"We certainly see strong growth in Java development and deployment," noted Perlstein at GartnerGroup. "I don't know that it's necessarily taking over the world the way Sun would like to see. I get a tremendous amount of calls from customers who are still doing very traditional Microsoft-environment development, using everything but Java. But Java is a significant factor."

Linux 'sneaks' into IT

On at least one front, Linux may have something of an advantage over other, established platforms: The free platform has gained the attention of top corporate developers. Many developers say they are sneaking Linux into development projects through the back door, a strategy made possible through its low price tag.

"The programmers just use Linux," said ParaSoft's Hicken. "It's a grassroots kind of thing. Eventually they force management to accept it. Then management sees that it is robust, that it does run, and that it's cheap and easy to set up. You can't discount what developers want because that's what they'll use."

Hicken maintains that Linux can make a covert assault on castle Microsoft. "Linux is sitting on the desktops of all kinds of programmers, but nobody can talk about it. I'll be talking with a manager in a big company and ask, 'What are you doing with Linux?' The manager will say, 'We don't do Linux.' When they walk out of the room, the programmer will turn to me and say, 'Actually, 30% to 40% of our work is done on Linux, but we can't tell anybody that because nobody trusts it.'"

But developer preference can be a two-edged sword for Linux, explained Gaughan at AMR. In many cases, the decision to go with one development platform over another is based on the existing skill sets of the developers. "It's about getting people to use your tools," he said. "And that's something that Microsoft has always understood very well.

"Think about it this way," added Gaughan. "If I'm an enterprise customer [with a] Web-based, customer-facing application that I'm building, and I'm a complete Microsoft shop, I would have to consider my internal expertise. There's a learning curve involved in adopting any new platform. If you have a stable full of VB programmers, depending on your time-to-project-completion demands you may be better off doing something with Active Server Pages that can use VB script because your people can probably throw it together twice as fast."

"If you look at Web-centric development," said Giga's Zetie, "the platform is not so much the operating system any more. The platform is more the app server. We believe that, in some cases, development platform decisions are driven primarily by the development tools. For example, many people find Microsoft's Visual Studio to be a great development tool. That's enough to attract them to the Microsoft platform, and to COM and MTS. For others, the desire to use Java is enough to attract them to an EJB-based platform. These kinds of decisions are capability-driven. You can't lead with the platform considerations."

Another factor influencing development platform decisions is the heterogeneous nature of enterprise IT. Even if a development manager manages to keep his or her operation a purely single-vendor operation, today's economy almost dictates that the company will one day be an acquirer or acquiree of another operation that likely runs different systems.

"Part of the reason we've ended up in a situation where companies have so many different platforms is because it's very hard to standardize on one," said Gartner's Perlstein. "Maybe there's an app you want that runs only on a particular platform. Or the platform exists somewhere in your company and you want to find something that will run on it. Or maybe you bring in a particular runtime environment that drags a platform along with it. There have always been a lot of factors affecting platform choice."

"What developers are looking at is cross-platform development," said AMR's Gaughan. "Consequently, Java is one of the biggest development influences right now."

Added Perlstein, "Developers who are focused on deploying in a multiplatform environment tend to lean toward the Java world. But there are an awful lot of companies out there that run in a very Microsoft-centric environment."

And Microsoft is touting the ready-to-ship Windows 2000 Advanced Server edition as its high-end environment for running line-of-business applications and operations. The Windows 2000 DataCenter Server is expected to offer incrementally better performance and to serve as a niche product for large data warehouses. Microsoft continues to refine its Web strategy, talking now of its Next-Generation Windows Services.

"Windows dominance, still firmly in place on the desktop, is not so clear anymore," said Giga's Zetie. "There are alternatives. Corel [Ottawa, Ontario] has just come out with a Linux desktop implementation that addresses many of the complaints usually directed at Linux." Once Linux's web of developers effectively deal with those complaints, which include the operating system's complex installation process and the lack of a graphics interface, "Linux on the desktop starts to be a real possibility," he said.

In fact, Corel executives said the firm spent more than $2 billion in stock to buy toolmaker Inprise, Scotts Valley, Calif., specifically to capitalize on the Linux boom. Together, executives told reporters, the two struggling suppliers could become a Linux powerhouse.

"Linux is a solid operating system, no doubt about it," noted AMR's Gaughan. "I don't think it's going to touch Windows in the short term. You don't have application vendors lining up to build on Linux. Everyone is saying, 'It's in the plan.' But nobody is really moving on it. And until you get the application vendors moving full force behind Linux, it's going to be an appliance in a closet. It won't move into the mainstream until vendors view it as strategic."

If the projected growth rates of some researchers - such as IDC's prediction that Linux sales will grow at a rate of more than 25% annually through 2003 - come true, software makers will have to take heed. If the Linux boom fizzles, however, then all bets are off.