As the shipment date for Intel and Hewlett-Packard's 64-bit chip architecture comes closer, vendors are teaming up into several consolidated Unix camps to prepare for it.
And so far, the heads of those teams appear to be Santa Cruz Operation (SCO), Sun Microsystems, HP and Digital.
The most recent announcements surrounding this came during the final days of April. HP announced that NEC, Hitachi and Stratus Computer became the first licensees for HP-UX on the 64-bit architecture, known as Merced.
The same week, Siemens Nixdorf announced its commitment to Sun Microsystems for the delivery of Unix servers. Beginning in the second half of 1999, Siemens Nixdorf expects to begin delivery of Unix servers running Sun's Solaris operating environment and powered by Merced.
According to analysts, these types of partnership announcements will be sprouting up as the shipment of Merced, expected in 1999, nears. So far, most activity has been in the Unix area as opposed to NT.
"From a software standpoint, NT is not necessarily going to be up to the task from an operating system perspective to support enterprise-grade computing requirements," says Tony Iams, analyst at D.H. Brown & Associates in Port Chester, New York.
"That leaves an opening for Unix and that's why you're seeing so much activity for Unix on Merced."
Jean Bozman, analyst at International Data in Mountain View, California, says the big question right now is who's going to choose whom as a partner for 64-bit Unix.
"You need to have 64-bit Unix to run on Merced, and you need to have a partner if you're not going to do it yourself."
She says a company such as Data General, for example, which is already selling NT, wouldn't want to spend the money on building its own version of 64-bit Unix.
"Why build a 64-bit Unix if somebody else is doing it?" she says. "So the first level of consolidation is these partnerships."
Iams says "the heir apparent" for Unix on the Intel platform is SCO. Iams said SCO's strength is that it is already established on the Intel platform and it has dominant market share for Unix on Intel at this point.
"But SCO still has to prove that it can handle the enterprise capabilities," he says.
That's the motivation behind SCO's announcement of partnerships with Unisys, Compaq, ICL and Data General, according to Iams.
Michael Foster, director of Unix systems marketing for SCO in Santa Cruz, California, says he has confidence in SCO UnixWare's ability to be successful in the 64-bit enterprise market. UnixWare 7, released in March, has capabilities for 64-bit upgrades. "Part of the reason the OEMs committed was that we had a very clear path to 64-bit," he says.
Foster says he believes everyone else is behind his company in the race for Merced mindshare, except for HP.
Iams agrees, saying HP's recent announcement helped bring it forward.
"HP has targeted this area for years now, and (the announcement about the three licensees) showed that they would be complementing the enterprise credibility they already have with cooperation by NEC, Hitachi and Stratus, who also bring significant enterprise competency to the table," he says.
Lynn Anderson, enterprise marketing manager for the computer organisation for Hewlett-Packard Canada, says HP has what she estimates as a four-year head-start on the competition because of its work with Intel, and that a major part of HP's strategy includes making similar partnership announcements in the near future.
Sun has just recently gotten serious about 64-bit applications, according to Iams.
"They've secured a relationship with Intel that is required to start developing for Merced, and they also have secure OEM relationships with significant players they didn't have before -- NCR, (Fujitsu Ltd.) and Siemens Nixdorf," he says.
Sun's relationship with Intel will enable it to have a 64-bit version of Solaris available when Merced ships, and having those partners committed to using Solaris for Merced helps, according to Iams.
"Now the fly in the ointment here is that Sun itself is not going to have any Merced-based systems -- they're going to continue to focus on SPARC, and so it's going to be up to their partners to drive Solaris on Merced."
Tom Goguen, senior product marketing manager for Solaris at Sun, confirmed the company has no plan to build any Merced-based machines itself. "We're still very committed to SPARC," he says.
He says, however, that generally the markets which companies such as NCR and Fujitsu attack are different from the markets Sun's platform targets, so those relationships are comfortable.
The "final guy at the table", according to Iams, is Digital.
"They announced they would be moving to Merced back in December, then surprised the industry by almost immediately signing up an OEM, which was Sequent," he says. "Then more recently, they've also secured the commitment of Tandem to deploy Digital Unix on some of their Merced-based systems."
Bill Harris, manager of enterprise personal systems group for Digital Equipment of Canada, says the position of one clear leader is a difficult one to determine in the industry right now.
"There's a couple of interesting statements in the industry. One of them is that Unix is Unix is Unix -- well I'm afraid not," he says. "There's still no universal environment that allows me to develop in a Unix environment and take it across all Unixes with any true functionality."
He says the byte ordering -- "little endian vs. big endian" -- will continue to separate Unixes into a couple of different flavors.
"But Merced will be bi-endian, which means it can actually present an address high order or low order."
SCO's Foster says he sees the ongoing movement toward a unified Unix ending at this consolidation of g roups.
"I seriously doubt companies like HP and others will give up that revenue stream -- they'll want to maintain some kind of proprietariness to keep their stream," he says.
IDC's Bozman agrees there will be no one winner.
"Everyone always wants to know who's going to win, but I learned a long time ago that there's always going to be a few -- as you can see right now there's a short list of four," she said. "And I think 'the race' is basically over."