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As Red Hat prepares to launch the Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 operating system, the question is again being asked whether a robust and feature-laden operating system is really needed for some computing situations.

Makers of "software appliances" are using the launch as an opportunity to predict that the days of the monolithic operating system are numbered. They say the future lies in a modular system in which software runs with only enough lines of operating system code to make it work.

Some see promise in the appliance alternative to the operating system, while skeptics think large enterprises will still need a general-purpose operating system.

The same questions arose recently around the launch of Microsoft Windows Vista. A trio of Gartner analysts published a report in 2006 that said the increasing complexity of Windows makes it "unsustainable". Gartner predicted Windows will be broken up into modular components.

The same could be said for Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 (RHEL 5), said Billy Marshall, chief executive and co-founder of rPath, a software appliance platform vendor.

As new features are added to it, RHEL 5 has become just as unwieldy as Windows, Marshall said. "It's bigger and more bloated."

Operating system vendors add all sorts of functionality in the event some enterprise may want it, and the addition of these features is one of the reasons why both Microsoft and Red Hat have encountered delays bringing their products to market, he said.

Installing an operating system could use as much as 1.82G bytes of space on a hard drive, he said. A software appliance with only the code to run one application would use just 300M bytes, he said.

"The general-purpose operating system model is breaking," Marshall said.

Another software appliance vendor, Ingres, on 27 February launched a database management software appliance it calls "Icebreaker" to compete against IBM DB2 and Oracle database software.

Software appliances may have a place in some niche environments in which a customer needs to run just a few pieces of software, said Jay Lyman, an analyst with The 451 Group. But a larger business would probably still need the various programmes that are bundled into an operating system, he said.

It might be possible to run an enterprise infrastructure without an operating system, Lyman said. "But then again, you've already got people [in your IT department] running the operating system, and it's a pretty critical part of the infrastructure."

Rather than seeing operating systems fading, "I think we're seeing the trends going the other way," said Adam Jollans, director of worldwide strategy for Linux and open source at IBM.

At a time when IT administrators want to get more out of their existing hardware, isolating software applications and running them only with small pieces of code seems counterproductive, Jollans said.

"Many more people want to run multiple applications and do many different things...so I think we need the generic operating system to support all the different things people want to do," he said.