Hardware Vendors Eye Strength of UNIX

Four companies share their viewpoints in plenary session

The message from hardware vendors at UniForum '94 was that UNIX is strong. In their view, it's strong because it's open and reliable, and it's strong in competition with mainframes and with Microsoft.

Those opinions emerged at the plenary session discussion on hardware vendors' open systems strategies featuring representatives of four systems vendors: AT&T Global Information Solutions (formerly NCR), Compaq, DEC and Data General.

"I think that UNIX is just beginning to come into its own," said Pauline Nist, vice president of hardware engineering for Alpha servers with DEC. "There will be a continuous rolling out of new solutions [with UNIX] that allow you to do more and more with less and less."

Panel moderator Michael Dortch, senior writer for Communications Week, contended that UNIX has not "caught on." Steve Gardner, Data General's vice president of corporate marketing, disagreed, saying UNIX is now a system of choice in the business world. "Corporate America is buying these systems and the servers that go with them and the software that runs on them," he said. "That's an incredible landscape change in the last 12 months." But Gardner added that buyers are wary enough to "want to know about reliability, price and how you are to do business with."

The main factors holding UNIX back, noted John Paul, Compaq's vice president for systems software, are that UNIX-based systems aren't being produced in the volumes necessary to make them really cheap and that fragmentation in the industry creates confusion among potential users. "The secret to UNIX's success in the future - and it still has time - is in volume," he said.

Paul added that customers are making their biggest investments in software. Echoing that point, Gardner said, "The thing we [hardware vendors] have to work on most of all is to make our machines invisible, to have the software run as simply and reliably as possible on the hardware."

Dortch raised the question of how users can gain the benefits of open systems while retaining the service level they're used to with proprietary systems. Nist said that users who want service will have to pay for the value they want. "It's not going to exist as a freebie" when users are opting to buy segments of their systems from multiple vendors.

While AT&T's Russell Holt, associate vice president of platform and system software, hailed IBM's MVS operating system as "the standard in reliability, maintainability and serviceability in the data center," Gardner jumped to the defense of UNIX. "The average IBM mainframe is truly available for operations about 53 percent of the time," he said. "It's just erroneous to say that the mainframe sets the standard for availability. UNIX is the enterprise server of choice today. It's reliable and it's superior to anything that the proprietary world has to offer."

The issue of UNIX unification prompted Nist's observation that the Common Open Software Environment has been "sort of like the United Nations - you participate because you don't want to be against world peace."

Dortch contended that "the level of confidence out there is not very high" on the chances for COSE's success. In response, Gardner jumped on the bandwagon of Spec 1170, the application programming interface unification initiative that grew out of COSE. "That's a wonderful initiative," he said. "For the first time, the industry didn't invent a bunch of new stuff."

Paul said that it is important for Spec 1170 to succeed. "We need to allow the software developer on the UNIX platform to amortize his investment to the point where he can take advantage of it," he said.

Nist found another reason why COSE might succeed. "I have a lot of faith in the biggest unifying force in the computing market, and that's Microsoft," she said.