The OS game: Old hands, new deal

Vendors ante up to meet enterprise demands and place their bets on 64-bit computing

Desktop and server operating systems have always been the black holes of the software world: they tend to absorb the useful utilities, technologies and practical little applications of day-to-day computing.

Through much of the 1980s and 1990s, that meant the nuts-and-bolts of IT, such as file systems and disk utilities, became part of the OS. Then OSes became colorful, graphical and interoperable with a broad array of data sources. The Internet age has made multimedia and basic network support part of the standard feature set.

But nowadays, security, reliability, ubiquitous communication and enterprise management are paramount concerns, and OS vendors have responded. Built-in file encryption, Secure Sockets Layer security, IP networking and system administration are now standard in server OSes.

More and more data

A major focus of vendors for the past two to three years has been file-system technology. Schemes for managing files have always been a core function of OSes, but users now need to efficiently manage the terabytes of data that are growing exponentially thanks to the Web and the boom in high-capacity networked storage.

'It's not just a single, standalone type of technology, and a part of the [operating system's] kernel, but it also the means to recover and to access data across a network,' said George Weiss, vice president and analyst at market researchers Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn.

A leading-edge file system is absolutely essential to server reliability, Weiss said. Newer file systems, such as the ZFS technology in the Unix-based Solaris OS from Sun Microsystems Inc., can simplify administration of disk volumes and file types, taking on some of the tasks of standalone storage-management software.

'The idea is to make it far simpler for the operating system to interoperate with that storage,' said Bill Moffitt, Sun's group marketing manager for Solaris. Predictive self-healing, another emerging technology of mission-critical enterprise OSes, employs a middle layer of software to detect pending hardware failures and move data to safer places.

Hardware advances are driving OS capabilities, and the tidal wave washing over the software world today is the increasing affordability and performance of 64-bit CPUs'and 64-bit extensions of existing 32-bit technology'from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif. and Intel Corp.

Apple Computer Inc., with the PowerPC G5 processor, Microsoft Corp. and Sun, with AMD, Intel and Sparc processors, are all taking advantage of the 64-bit architectures. Scientific and other graphics-intensive, specialized workstation applications'and some server apps'remain the most common use for 64-bit systems. As CPU prices come down, the technology should make its way into mainstream business software.

But for now, 64-bit technology remains a niche, and is scarcely used even in server OSes. 'It's more for the back end of systems'for the large databases,' Weiss said.

Mostly because of the popularity of the Unix variant, Linux, and the open-source community that develops and shares the source code, today's OS choices are more varied'and yet more alike'than in the past.

Linux, especially the Red Hat distribution, is now common on Web servers and network 'edge' applications such as firewalls, thanks in large part to IBM's major investment in the product.

Mandrakesoft and SUSE Inc. also make Linux server software used at government agencies and corporations. Linux has struggled for acceptance on the desktop because of a dearth of off-the-shelf office applications: The open-source OpenOffice, and its commercial version, Sun's StarOffice, remain the only major applications that truly compete with popular Windows programs.

Solaris runs on both Sun's RISC-based Sparc chip, and on the AMD and Intel x86 platform of mainstream office computing. Sun often markets its x86 version as an alternative to users of the popular x86 versions of Linux who want a more predictable code base and the reassurance of Sun's long experience.

The security-conscious may opt for a specialized version, called Trusted Solaris, which meets security guarantees prescribed by the Common Criteria. Military customers such as the Navy's Pacific Air Command use Trusted Solaris, as do investigative agencies around the world and U.S. armored vehicles in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the Apple Macintosh platform has been striving to expand beyond its core user base.
Apple said its next major release of the Mac OS, code-named Tiger and expected in the first half of next year, will be fully 64-bit and have a new feature called Spotlight that lets you search drives by content rather than file names. Here again, the file system is the enabling technology.

'The minute a file gets downloaded, Spotlight gets notified,' said Ken Bereskin, Apple's director of product marketing. Instead of using the existing Mac OS' less timely, periodic 'crawling' and indexing of content, Tiger will be able to index on demand, Bereskin said.

Windows evolution

In contrast, closed, proprietary operating systems are fewer and farther between, but then again, they're Microsoft Windows.

The venerable PC OS has undergone an evolution on the server side that led a couple of years ago to the current version, Windows Server 2003. It's widely regarded as the first Windows OS with any pretense of competing with the popular Unix variants in scalability and reliability.

Despite efforts by Red Hat and others to build a credible Linux client, Windows still reigns on the desktop. Microsoft is lately touting a major upgrade, code named Longhorn, that will have a redesigned user interface that takes advantage of 3-D graphics hardware.

The OS world's new diversity within unity is apparent in the accompanying product listing, which includes only desktop and server operating systems, leaving out the more specialized OSes for handheld and tablet PCs and embedded systems.

David Essex is a free-lance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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