Linux Moves From Grazing to Gorging at the Unix Buffet

Monday Dec 1st 2008 by Paul Rubens

OS Roundup: The latest list of Top500 supercomputers reveals Linux isn't content making Unix its lunch. It's eating it for dinner as well.

UNIX is being attacked by Linux from the top and bottom ends of the market. The signs are that it is losing the battle on both fronts.

A couple of weeks back I wrote that Linux is becoming increasingly capable of doing the less-demanding tasks that UNIX has historically been asked to do, so there is less and less need for UNIX. That explains its falling share of the server market.

But what about the more demanding tasks? The kinds of tasks that are set by industrial facilities, research institutes, universities and meteorological forecasting centers. The kind of mind-bogglingly complicated tasks, in fact, that require the most powerful supercomputers in the world?

Ten years ago, when Linux was just a baby, UNIX owned this market. Of the 500 most powerful supercomputers in the world (as defined at all but three (that's 99.4 percent) were powered by UNIX. There was one Linux system, one BSD-based system (which Top500 counts separately,) and one other. In terms of vendors, Sun had the biggest share (25.2 percent), followed closely by SGI and IBM.

Let's fast forward five years to 2003. Linux is now a bit older and stronger. UNIX still owns the lion's share of the market, but now it's got only 289 (57.8 percent) of the Top 500 supercomputers. Linux, from nowhere, now runs on 184 systems, or 36.8 percent of the market. IBM and HP own about one-third of the market, while Sun's market share is down to just 4 percent.

Last month, coinciding with the start of the SC08 high performance computing conference in Austin, Texas, published its latest set of statistics. Here's what it found. And be warned: For UNIX, it ain't pretty.

Of the top 500 supercomputer systems, 439 (87.8 percent) now run Linux and just 23 (4.6 percent) run UNIX. There are 31 supercomputers that run a mix of Linux and UNIX, plus a couple that run MacOS or BSD. But even if you count these as UNIX systems it's quite clear that Linux now owns this market, and for UNIX it's a catastrophe. In the past two years alone, UNIX's market share (excluding mixed Linux/UNIX systems) has dropped a staggering two thirds.

As far as vendors are concerned, HP (41.8 percent) has edged ahead of IBM (37.2 percent). And the once mighty Sun is in meltdown with just seven systems in the Top 500, or 1.4 percent of the market.

Now there are a few things to bear in mind when looking at these statistics, including the methodology uses to compile its list. Using different benchmarks and definitions could result in different findings, for example. And it's not absolutely clear how to categorize the 31 "mixed" Linux and UNIX systems.

But going with Top500's methodology, the most powerful system in the world right now — an IBM machine called Roadrunner — runs Linux. So Linux isn't just eating in to the bottom end of the UNIX market — it's dining out at the very top end, too.

In the past 10 years, UNIX's market share in the supercomputer market has taken the mother of all beatings, and it's lost market share in the enterprise server market as well. Which begs the question: Where exactly is the market for UNIX in the future? Or to put it more starkly, does UNIX have a future?

Paul Rubens is an IT consultant and journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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