Unix: Standardization Efforts Aren't Dead

by Sean Michael Kerner

The ongoing standardization of Unix continues apace, but there's a smorgasbord of standards, formal and de facto.

Unix standardization efforts are ongoing. No that's not a misprint. Unix is far from dead, and efforts to provide a degree of standardization for the remaining Unix players may well be a lifeline.

Then again, according to at least one analyst, new Unix standards, though important, may not necessarily be everything.

A defining aspect of what actually makes Unix Unix is conformance with The Single Unix Specification, a set of specs that constitutes a Unix-conformant system. The idea behind this specification is that, with some form of standardization in place, independent software vendors (ISVs) can develop or port applications that will work on a Unix system.

The Single Unix Specification version 3 (Unix 03) and its certification efforts are managed by The Open Group.

The certified

IBM recently announced that its AIX 5L V5.3 operating system had been certified to Unix 03. IBM was also the first company to be certified for Unix 03 with its now-legacy AIX 5L V5.2 operating system. Sun Microsystems is also certified for Unix 03.

HP's Unix offerings, however, are not certified for the latest Unix 03 specification.

Kevin Brady, senior open source planner for business critical systems at HP, said that Unix 03 is important for HP's customers, because it provides a high degree of application portability between Unix 03-conforming platforms.

"The upcoming version of HP-UX (early 2007) will support the Open Group's Unix 2003 specification," Brady told internetnews.com.

Larry Wake, group manager for Solaris software at Sun, noted that standardization drives ISV participation, which in his view is the ultimate key to a platform's success.

"It reduces the effort required for developers to support a given platform, and has a direct effect on customers' costs in adopting and supporting a platform," Wake told internetnews.com. "It reduces the 'barrier to exit' allowing customers to choose among the field of standards-based OSes."

IBM sees it the same way, though likely from a perspective that Sun doesn't appreciate.

"As AIX on IBM System p has dramatically taken market share from our competitors, it is even more important that we provide the open application programming interfaces in AIX 5L to make it easier for customers and ISVs to port their code to AIX 5L," Jay Kruemcke, AIX 5L offering manager for IBM told internetnews.com.

Is it really the standards?

According to Jonathan Eunice, principal IT adviser at Illuminata, formal standards such as Unix 03 are important at removing gratuitous differentiation from the market.

"But -- and this is a very big but -- the real driver of independent software vendor behavior is how much money they can make by supporting a platform," Eunice told internetnews.com.

"For secondary or marginal platforms, being highly conformant to standards is more important; by reducing the difficulty and barriers to supporting the platform, the platform vendor encourages software ports."

So when it comes to dealing with industry heavyweights IBM, Sun and HP, Eunice argues that no amount of variation from the Unix 03 spec is going to dissuade ISVs from supporting the platform.

"There is just too much business hanging in the balance," Eunice said.

Other Unix standards

Unix 03 is certainly not the first, nor will it likely be the last, Unix standard.

One of the most common Unix standards is POSIX (Portable Operating System Interface for Unix) (define), with which BSD and Linux OSes comply. Being POSIX-compliant, though, isn't necessarily enough in the modern Unix world.

Steve Nunn, COO of the Open Group, told internetnews.com that POSIX certification is different from Unix 03.

"It draws upon certain aspects of the Single Unix specification, but is not a replacement for it," Nunn said.

And according to IBM's Kruemcke, no single standard is sufficient, so POSIX is but one Unix standard that needs to be complied with.

Sun's Wake takes the argument a step further by noting that there are many de facto standards in addition to Unix 03 and POSIX that are important.

"One area we've focused on with Solaris, especially starting with Solaris 8 in 2000, is support for many of the de facto open source standards by including packages such as Apache, Perl, GNOME and the various GNU utilities," Wake said.

"These aren't in the main covered by any formal standards body, but serve the same function by providing a great deal of 'mobility' among the various open source OSes, such as Solaris, the BSDs, and Linux."

No Linux or BSD vendor has achieved Unix 03 certification, but that's not to say it couldn't happen.

"Although this has yet to happen, several Linux system vendors are utilizing test suites made available by the Open Group to help them gain the surety they need to apply for Unix certification," Nunn said.

Does Unix 03 really matter then?

Though Unix 03 is the latest official Unix standard, diverging from it may not necessarily have significant consequences, according to Illuminata's Eunice.

"Even if the vendors diverge from Unix 03 here and there, they are almost completely in compliance with earlier specs, such as Unix 98 and other standards going back to the POSIX, XPG and FIPS specs that were the state-of-the-art standards of the late 1980s and 1990s," Eunice said.

"So being out of conformance with Unix 03 does not mean that they really diverge that much in practice. So yes, Unix 03 is important -- but only in a general and diffuse way."

It won't matter much that HP-UX won't be Unix 03 compliant until next year and both Sun and IBM are already compliant, said Eunice.

The standard of tomorrow

With Sun, HP and IBM all working to improve their respective Unix offerings, standards are likely to evolve along with them.

Nunn said that Unix 03 is evolved through the Austin Common Standards Revision Group, a joint technical working group established to develop and maintain the core open systems interfaces that are the POSIX 1003.1 (and former 1003.2) standards, ISO/IEC 9945 parts 1 to 4, and the core of Unix 03.

"However, any significant developments would occur within The Open Group membership," Nunn said. "And we are expecting significant activity over the next year."

Article courtesy of internetnews.com

This article was originally published on Tuesday Dec 5th 2006