Unix, Despite It’s Age, Still Has Followers

Operating systems, graphics cards and processors all have combined to improve the workstation and give shape to the market. Although these factors are conspiring to generate a considerable shift towards the Windows NT or personal workstation, the traditional Unix workstation still has its loyal followers.

According to figures released last year by research firm IDC Canada Ltd., NT workstation shipments, between 1998 and 2003, are projected to have a compound annual growth rate of 15 per cent. For the same period, traditional workstations are expected to decline by three per cent each year.

Despite the Unix workstation’s decline, it will still find a home in many niche areas and among companies that have made large purchases in the past and are reluctant to switch, said IDC.

“It’s still doing very well in the scientific area, as well as in large-scale manufacturing,” says Alan Freedman, research manager for servers and workstations at IDC. “It’s the organizations with the huge installed base that haven’t made the transition, while the organizations that are small or more agile are moving towards NT.”

unixTraditional Unix workstations are still found in departments devoted to engineering, mapping, geology and other technical applications. “The Unix market is not shrivelling up or fading away,” Freedman says. “But what we’re seeing now is that some of the mechanical and electrical design areas that were wholeheartedly Unix are now at least taking a look at the NT workstations.”

The reason they are looking at personal workstations has a lot to do with lower prices, increasing operating system reliability and the advances in processor and graphics technology. Independent software vendors have responded by porting many of their applications to Windows NT.

Backing up the capabilities of the personal workstation are improvements on the processor front. Of particular importance are Streaming SSMD Extensions, an innovation from Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif. Similar to the MMX innovation, SSE gives the Pentium III the ability to better perform the floating point calculations needed for high-end graphics calculations.

Coinciding with the advances in processing are low-cost graphics cards which ease entry into the world of high-end graphics work. In the past, the customer had to spend $3,000 or more to get a graphics card with an on-board geometry accelerator but now there are cards that can do this for less than half that amount.

Able to leverage the power of on-board processors, users get graphic performance that scales with their processing performance. One of the prominent applications of workstations’ high-end graphics capabilities is in Geographical Information System (GIS) applications. Some of the major GIS vendors, such as ESRI Inc. of Redlands, Calif., are porting many of their products to the Windows NT operating system. Higher processing power, in conjunction with the latest graphics cards, allow for a more dynamic presentation of geographic information.

The newer graphics cards also allow workstation users to use two monitors on a single workstation. Graphics cards that make this possible include the Millennium G400 Series from Matrox Graphic Inc. of Montreal. Based on what Matrox calls the “DualHead Display,” the feature allows the user to extend one application across two monitors, or open multiple applications at once. Some users, the company says, display applications on one monitor while showing tool bars on the other.

Six months ago desktop PCs were equipped with 4MB video cards. Now users are getting 8MB or 16MB.

But while this is pretty powerful for the desktop level, hardware isn’t necessarily the only means of defining a workstation, argues Kevin Knox, a senior research analyst with the Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn. “I think workstations are defined more by the application than they are by the hardware,” he says. “Generally, workstations are systems optimized for a specific vertical application. It’s not just high-end, mid-range and low-end.

“I agree that the lines are blurred and there are vendors out there that play to that. I think their workstation numbers are inflated significantly because they are showing workstations in the desktop market.”

“The high-end market is flat to a small decline in terms of revenues, and a larger decline in terms of units because of NT,” says IDC’s Freedman. “However, some companies are coming down with lower-priced Unix workstations to combat that — most notably Sun Microsystems with workstations that are lower in price and target the same markets as the NT workstations.”

“So while Unix does not have the majority of the units, it does have the lion’s share of the revenue,” says Freedman. “We are predicting over the next four or five years, slight negative growth in units and a bit higher negative growth in revenue — about two or three per cent.”

Gartner Group reports that NT will eventually supersede Unix in the high-end market. The Unix versus NT operating system game has been playing for some time now, and vendors, which at one time clearly chose sides, no longer seem as sure of the winning team.

Not too long ago, the workstation market consisted of Sun, HP, IBM and SGI, but there has been a rapid penetration of Wintel systems, says Knox. “Sun is trying to protect its installed base, and frankly not doing very well on the low end,” he says. “They introduced the Darwin product and that really hasn’t taken off as I know they wish it had.”

What users are saying, he continues, is they have an office productivity machine for the everyday applications, and a Unix box, and they want to consolidate them into a single system. “Right now that’s the NT system,” adds Knox. He expects traditional PC vendors such as Compaq and Dell to take the lead in market share because of the improved performance of NT, Xeon processors and other technologies.

There are, however, still some markets that can only be served, at this point, by the robustness Unix delivers. Traditionally, high-end workstation markets have included mechanical computer-aided design (MCAD) and electronic design (ECAD) in industries as diverse as auto, finance and software design.

Changes in workstation market

The rise of the personal workstation has dramatically changed the face of the workstation market in Canada — at least in terms of vendors.

In 1997, according to IDC, Hewlett-Packard Co. was the leading vendor with more than 14,000 units shipped in that year. Second was Sun Microsystems Inc. with approximately 8,000 units shipped. Following Sun were IBM, Digital, Compaq, Dell and Silicon Graphics. Since that time, the Windows NT/personal workstation market has been growing at 15 per cent compound annual growth while the Unix market has been declining by a three per cent annual growth rate. Trends for both camps are expected to continue until 2003.

In 1999, 19,500 workstations were shipped in Canada. as much as 32.6 per cent of the market is now held by Dell.

Compaq follows at 23.7 per cent, then Hewlett-Packard at 21.6 per cent, followed by IBM at 14.7 per cent. Other workstations account for the remaining 7.4 per cent of the market, IDC Canada reports.

Risc machines no longer dominate

Three years ago, the workstation market was dominated by RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) processor-based products running Unix operating systems and applications.

Today, several developments in this marketplace have allowed advanced application users to rely on other processors to provide comparable performance to a traditional workstation at a lower price.

A workstation-class system is a higher- performance computer specifically engineered for applications with more demanding processing, video and data requirements intended for professional users who need exceptional performance for computer-aided design (CAD), geographic information systems (GIS), digital content creation (DCC), computer animation, software development and financial analysis.

With the introduction of Pentium II processors, many computer companies expanded their product lines to offer Intel based workstations. The added performance provided by these and successive Intel Pentium III and Pentium III Xeon processors have resulted in a strong shift from proprietary, traditional workstations to branded personal workstations, which use the Windows NT operating system.

Workstation users benefit from rapidly evolving processor technology. High performance workstation-class systems let power users be more productive as projects can be completed much faster, saving organizations time and money.

The workstation market has been one of the first to benefit from the set of instructions incorporated into Intel’s Pentium III processors, called Streaming SIMD Extensions (SSE). This performance improvement will come from the new SSE-enhanced applications and drivers being introduced by hardware and softwar vendors.

Most branded workstations also provide the option to add a second processor, allowing users to takeadvantage of the multi-tasking and multi-threading capabilities of their applications and operating systems.

In addition to dual processor support, workstation-class products are differentiated by their options for advanced Open GL graphics adapters, greater memory and storage expansion, higher performance harddrives and application certification.

It is important to understand that all 3D graphics cards are not created equal. 3D video adapters can generally be categorized as those optimized for advanced workstation applications or those that are good for games.

OpenGL (OGL) support is the industry standard that separates the workstation from a gaming workstation.

Most of the workstation graphics glory goes to the high-end 3D video cards, but multiple monitors are also an important productivity tool for many workstation users. Two or more monitors can be of benefit tp those who require more display space for increased efficiency and effectiveness while multi-tasking.

For instance, multiple monitors can help software developers create and debug applications by having an application on one screen and a debugger on another, or a programming editor on one and an onlin reference manual on the other.