While Microsoft's decision to postpone its attempt to deliver a unified file system until 2006 or beyond is a potential setback for the company, it doesn't necessarily mean that the next-generation, seamless computing experience is also going to be delayed.
A unified file system is an important advance because it facilitates the development of a seamless computing experience over multiple devices and applications. At its simplest, this means users interacting with one application on a handheld can have that data instantly available to them using a completely different application on, for example, a desktop PC.
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As an industry, we need this advance to recapture the enthusiasm for computing among the average business user. Unified file systems could substantially increase their productivity. As things stand right now, vendors' tendency to roll out one marginally useful feature after another is making the end user numb.
Fortunately, a number of alternatives to Microsoft are making substantial progress.
IBM, Oracle and, to a lesser degree, BEA Systems have all done an admirable job creating first-generation implementations of unified file systems. IBM and Oracle have an advantage because in addition to having application servers, they have strong relational database engines, which are pivotal for next-generation file systems.
In the open-source community, progress also is being made, as evidenced by IBM's move to donate its Cloudscape database technology to the Apache Group.
The idea that a unified file system could be built on top of a database married to the Apache Web server is intriguing. Some combination of work between the JBoss application server camp and the MySQL camp would be equally intriguing. Both of which might be done by 2007. Novell is also worth watching now that it has assembled the raw materials to be a significant force across Linux and Windows.
Elsewhere, hardware storage vendors EMC and Network Appliance already have virtual file systems, as does Veritas. Look for these vendors to extend their influence up the software stack.
Whatever happens, one thing is certain: The mantle of innovation in the enterprise these days is not solely in the hands of those in Redmond, Wash. Far from it.
What's your impression of unified file systems? I can be reached at (516) 562-7477 or via e-mail at email@example.com.