While the Unix server business has lost much of its glamour in the face of assaults from Windows, Linux, and the cloud, there is still plenty of life -- and growth -- in the business, although for the foreseeable future that growth will be enjoyed only by IBM.
The Unix operating system, and the servers which provide the base to run it, are still the heart of many of the world's mission-critical enterprise data center infrastructures. It provides a combination of performance and stability as yet unmatched by any other operating environments.
And, despite multiple predictions for years of its gradual fade away to obscurity as newer generations of companies and employees come to market with Windows or Linux experience, the Unix market is still growing.
Indeed, analyst firm Gartner in late November reported that, while the number of RISC processor-based servers, the platform on which Unix typically operates, dropped a slight 6.8 percent in the third quarter of 2011 compared to the same period a year ago, the revenue for those servers actually rose 3.5 percent.
That rise in Unix server revenue compared to the decline in volume is good news in that it shows a rise in average selling prices. This indicates that enterprises are purchasing increasingly powerful servers to run Unix applications, providing higher performance needed both for new and upgraded applications as well as for increasingly virtualized application environments.
Richard Fichera, vice president and principal analyst for the infrastructure and operations research team at Forrester, wrote in the Fall that Unix on proprietary RISC architecture will remain an important part of the enterprise for years for several reasons, including performance, the ability to run workloads on dynamically scalable and electrically isolated partitions, and the highest levels of reliability and availability outside of mainframe or fault tolerant environments.
Looking forward, Fichera said he expects Unix server vendors to improve the scalability of operating system scheduling to accommodate increasing numbers of threads and cores, improved online maintenance and availability, improve partitioning to better handle virtualized workloads, and improve system management tools.
Currently, three primary vendors, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Oracle, account for about 97.2 percent of all RISC processor-based Unix servers shipped worldwide, or about 94.6 percent of the revenue for Unix servers, according to Gartner.
Those three vendors also provide their own versions of Unix, none of which are compatible with the other or with Linux, which was derived in part from Unix technology.
However, the three are taking different paths towards the future of the Unix server, a future which current trends seem to point towards success for IBM at the expense of its two rivals.
Oracle, which inherited the SPARC processor-based server line and the Solaris Unix operating system with its acquisition of Sun Microsystems, has since moved to eliminate its low-margin server business while focusing more on building hardware appliances that combine its server, storage, operating system, and middleware into complete, turnkey systems.
Those appliances include the Oracle Exadata Database Machine, a database appliance for high-performance data warehousing and online transaction processing workloads, and the Oracle Exalogic, an appliance for high-performance Java applications, Oracle applications, and other enterprise applications.
These appliances have for the most part gone through direct sales, although Oracle Senior Vice President Judson Althoff, who oversees the company's worldwide alliances, channels and embedded sales efforts, in November told CRN that the company is looking for indirect sales partners who can compete against federated hardware stacks from other vendors.
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