The long, slow death of commercial Unix

Unix was the standard for mission-critical computing. Now it’s clinging for life. How will it end?

In the 1990s and well into the 2000s, if you had mission-critical applications that required zero downtime, resiliency, failover and high performance, but didn’t want a mainframe, Unix was your go-to solution.

If your database, ERP, HR, payroll, accounting, and other line-of-business apps weren’t run on a mainframe, chances are they ran on Unix systems from four dominant vendors: Sun Microsystems, HP, IBM and SGI. Each had its own flavor of Unix and its own custom RISC processor. Servers running an x86 chip were at best used for file and print or maybe low-end departmental servers.

Today it’s a x86 and Linux world, with some Windows Server presence. Virtually every supercomputer on the Top 500 list runs some flavor of Linux and an x86 processor. SGI is long gone. Sun lived on for a while through Oracle, but in 2018 Oracle finally gave up. HP Enterprise only ships a few Unix servers a year, primarily as upgrades to existing customers with old systems. Only IBM is still in the game, delivering new systems and advances in its AIX operating system.

We aren’t going to dwell on how we got here. Instead, this is a look at where commercial Unix is going, and how and when it will eventually die. (Note: We're specifically talking about the decline of commercial Unix. Still flourishing are the free and open-source variants such as FreeBSD, which was born out of the Berkeley Software Development (BSD) project at the University of California, Berkeley, and GNU.)

Unix's slow decline

Unix’s decline is “more of an artifact of the lack of marketing appeal than it is the lack of any presence,” says Joshua Greenbaum, principal analyst with Enterprise Applications Consulting. “No one markets Unix any more, it’s kind of a dead term. It’s still around, it’s just not built around anyone’s strategy for high-end innovation. There is no future, and it’s not because there’s anything innately wrong with it, it’s just that anything innovative is going to the cloud.”

“The UNIX market is in inexorable decline,” says Daniel Bowers, research director for infrastructure and operations at Gartner. “Only 1 in 85 servers deployed this year uses Solaris, HP-UX, or AIX. Most applications on Unix that can be easily ported to Linux or Windows have actually already been moved.”

Most of what remains on Unix today are customized, mission-critical workloads in fields such as financial services and healthcare. Because those apps are expensive and risky to migrate or rewrite, Bowers expects a long-tail decline in Unix that might last 20 years. “As a viable operating system, it’s got at least 10 years because there’s this long tail. Even 20 years from now, people will still want to run it,” he says.

unix server sales Gartner Gartner

Gartner tracks the decline of new Unix sales.

Gartner doesn’t track install base, just new sales, and the trend is down. In Q1 of 2014, Unix sales totaled $1.6 billion. By Q1 of 2018, sales were at $593 million. In terms of units, Unix sales are low, but they are almost always in the form of high-end, heavily decked-out servers that are much larger than your typical two-socket x86 server.

IBM the last UNIX man standing

It’s remarkable how tight-lipped people are over the state of Unix. Oracle and HPE declined to comment, as did several IBM customers. IBM is still in the game, but Bowers notes, “I see IBM investing $34 billion in Red Hat, but I don’t see IBM investing $34 billion in AIX.”

Steve Sibley, vice president of cognitive systems offerings at IBM, acknowledges the obvious but says IBM will still have a substantial number of clients on AIX in ten years, with the majority of clients being large Fortune 500 clients. He adds that there will also be a stable number of midrange customers in some ways “because they don’t want to spend the investment to get off AIX.”

Rob McNelly, senior AIX solutions architect at Meridian IT, a services provider and heavy AIX user, says there is an 80/20 rule for new applications for AIX: 80% of customers don’t grow their AIX footprint, but 20% stays and expands in AIX.

“Because 20% is the larger enterprise systems, it is a very big segment. In healthcare, many stable tier 1 production environments continue to invest and enjoy the stability and security of AIX. Established and embedded ERP systems do likewise at all layers,” McNelly says.

Many new applications pursue Linux, which

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