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In Gartner's forecast for the server operating systems market, there is nothing listed under the category of emerging products. And although the market is by no means static, the pace of change inside many corporate datacentres is slow.

Windows and Linux are growing both in terms of importance and in terms of the number of installations within data centres, eroding Unix's share of the server operating systems market, Gartner analysts said at the consulting firm's annual datacentre conference in Las Vegas late last month.

But the decline of Unix is happening at a glacial pace: Gartner predicts that worldwide Unix server revenue will drop from $16.4bn (£8bn) this year to $16bn (£7.8bn) in 2012. That's partly because a push by IT managers to reduce the number of operating systems they need to support may not be as easy to pull off as it sounds.

Frank Muller, senior director of technology and infrastructure support at HealthPartners, is among the users with an IT simplification mindset. And there's a good reason for that. HealthPartners, a not-for-profit health care organisation with about 640,000 members in Minnesota and four other states, runs the AIX and HP-UX derivatives of Unix as well as Windows, Linux and a mainframe system in its datacentre.

About 18 months ago, when Muller asked the developer of one application that was running on Hewlett-Packard's HP-UX to port it to IBM's AIX, the software vendor complied with the request.

But Muller said he recently moved the application back to HP-UX because he couldn't get a commitment from the developer for long term support of the software on AIX. "If the vendor isn't there from an application point of view, I don't think you'll make much headway” on reducing the number of operating systems used in datacentres, he said.

In an electronic poll during one session at the datacentre conference, attendees were asked about their server operating system plans. Of those who responded, about 40% said they were reducing the number of supported operating systems in their data centres. An equal percentage said they were maintaining the current mix, while the remaining 20% said they planned to add new operating systems.

In general, Gartner analyst John Enck said, users "want less complexity, and [they] want fewer operating systems". He added that for now, at least, the major vendors of Unix machines, HP, IBM and Sun Microsystems, continue to sell plenty of servers based on that operating system.

"Nobody is achieving great growth, but nobody is dying," Enck said. "There is stability".

In contrast, sales of Windows and Linux servers are on the increase, thanks to the growing use of x86 based systems for workloads that were once handled by Unix machines built around the hardware vendors' own RISC processors. According to Gartner's market forecast, Windows server sales will total $19.6bn this year and rise to $22.2bn by 2012. The firm predicts that sales of Linux based machines will grow from $8.6bn to $12.2bn over the same period.

Gartner expects the total market for server operating systems this year to be just over $54bn, which includes $9.5bn from an "other" category that encompasses technologies such as OpenVMS, NetWare, mainframe operating systems and older versions of Unix.

No rush to simplify

As Muller's experience at HealthPartners demonstrates, applications are a big reason why datacentres likely will continue to support a variety of operating systems. It's not only because vendors may be reluctant to support their applications on some operating systems. It's also the consequence of users wanting to match their processing workloads to the best technology for the job at hand. In addition, some IT managers said that cutting Unix out of the picture could hurt users in the long run.

For instance, Jerry Cohen, director of IT at a large company that he asked not be identified, said that too much datacentre simplification could stifle the impetus for innovation among vendors. Cohen added that if a company standardises on a single operating system, "your IT shop becomes status quo for eternity, and that will never drive the price down".

Also curbing the desire to simplify datacentre installations is the fact that server vendors now offer multiple operating systems on common chip architectures, making hardware support less complex for users.

As an example, IBM's System i hardware line, which features the i5/OS operating system, now uses the same Power processors as the company's System p Unix servers do. And HP offers HP-UX as well as OpenVMS and its NonStop fault tolerant operating system on servers based on Intel's Itanium processors.

For now, the relative stability among server operating systems is a fact of life for Kevin Piombo, manager of a Windows hosting environment for the California Department of Technology Services (DTS). The DTS provides IT hosting services for other California agencies, and its datacentre supports a broad range of operating systems.

There is "a lot of business need for specific platforms, and a lot of legacy applications that people don't have the time or money to [replace]," Piombo said.

He added that maintaining technologies such as IBM's MVS mainframe operating system creates another set of issues, namely, finding enough people to handle the system operation duties. Many of the MVS operations personnel at the DTS are retiring, said Piombo, who thinks that the IT agency will have to hire a third party firm to manage its mainframes in the future.