OS roundup

New breeds of old favorites, plus burgeoning Linux brands, put a lot of variety in the corral

You used to have only two or three real choices in operating systems for government PCs. You ran Microsoft Windows on desktops, and Unix on engineering and design workstations, and maybe Mac OS for graphics. You wouldn't dare put anything but Unix on servers.

That is, until the open-source Unix variant, Linux, came along several years ago. Microsoft Corp. meanwhile has worked doggedly to bolster Windows with the scalability and reliability required for server use.

Now, with several versions of each major OS available, the options are only growing'that is, unless the SCO Group's legal challenge puts a damper on Linux.

Despite the array of professional-class desktop and server OS choices included in the accompanying chart'which omits packages such as Windows Me and base Linux editions geared to home users and aficionados'it's possible to make generalizations. Mainstream business desktop systems (that means non-Mac) come down to Windows XP, a visually redesigned, less crash-prone upgrade of Windows 98, and Windows 2000 Professional, essentially the client companion to Windows Server.

Linux remains uncommon on government desktop PCs, though the steady march of serious applications, notably Sun Microsystems Inc.'s StarOffice, is slowly changing that. And solid desktop offerings from Red Hat Inc., MandrakeSoft Inc. and SuSE Inc. provide an affordable alternative to Windows.

All come with office suites'usually StarOffice or the open-source equivalent, OpenOffice'graphics, games, Web browsers and e-mail. A relative upstart, Lycoris, also sells a Linux desktop OS/application suite, while Lindows.com Inc. has moved off its original claim of running Windows applications on Linux. Instead, the company promises Windows file compatibility and a modest list of full apps tested to run on Lindows.

Moving up in power to workstations usually requires an OS that can handle more concurrent processors, more RAM and often the 64-bit address space of the systems' cutting-edge, RISC-based CPUs. Workstation vendors such as Hewlett-Packard Co., SGI and Sun excel in this area with their Unix operating systems: HP-UX, Irix and Solaris, respectively. In March, Microsoft joined the fray with Windows XP 64-Bit Edition Version 2003, for Intel Itanium machines.

The same big-iron mentality applies to servers, only more so. Enterprise and data-center versions of the popular Linux OSes, especially those of Red Hat, as well as Windows, Mac OS X and the major Unix variants, add system administration, fault tolerance, failover and support for still more symmetric CPUs and RAM that can reach 512G.

The commercial Linux, Mac OS and Unix packages are all fed by healthy open-source communities that develop free OS kernels such as Darwin (for Mac OS X), UnitedLinux and Debian. All are available for free download but without the support that backs their shrink-wrapped cousins. They tend to interest developers more than IT managers.

Recent years have brought a trend toward Unix on commodity 'Wintel' x86 PCs, so Unix is not locked into the high-priced RISC machines often derided as proprietary by competitors. It's been one of the main drivers of Linux's popularity, and a reason why Unix vendors are moving onto the x86 platform.

Sun, for example, which made the move with its Solaris 9 Unix OS, might see an opportunity to snatch Linux sales with its $95 x86 version while countering Microsoft's upward move into workstations and servers. 'We've put libraries in Solaris to enable open-source applications to recompile on Solaris,' said Bill Moffitt, group marketing manager for Solaris.

Apple polishing

For its part, Apple Computer Inc. has continued with impressive upgrades to Mac OS X for Macintosh servers and desktop PCs, now at version 10.2.6 and loaded with dozens of utilities. But it's still relegated to graphics-intensive applications and not a major factor in government.
Apple plans to unveil a long-rumored major upgrade called Panther in September.

The big event in the Windows world was the release this spring of Windows Server 2003 to rave reviews touting its performance, scalability and manageability. The OS also sports improved security and symmetric multiprocessor support, as well as a major upgrade of the Microsoft's streaming-media engine, Windows Media Services 9.

Still, the upgrade decision isn't simple. 'Sixty to 70 percent of the installed base of Windows Server is running NT [Windows NT 4],' said Tom Bittman, research vice president at Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn. 'NT's end of life is the end of next year,' he said. 'What that means is support from Microsoft stops. ... We recommend migrating off NT by the end of next year and going to Server 2003.'

Bittman said that although Windows Server 2003 has important new features, such as a more powerful and flexible Active Directory'which still requires upgrading network domain controllers to get the new functions'and a major upgrade of Internet Information Server 6.0, it's not worth switching just for the features. Microsoft's support roadmap should drive the decision instead, unless you were planning to replace hardware anyway, he said.

Microsoft also is laying the groundwork for the next major desktop Windows, code-named Longhorn, which it says will have new file and 3-D graphics technology. The company plans to release it by 2005.

David Essex is a freelance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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