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Features - February 2000 - Fitting the bill
Does one particular vertical market favour one particular operating system? Annie Gurton says it shouldn’t.

The good news is that the number of operating systems has gradually shrunk over the years. That means less choice, which in this instance is good. The bad news is that it is still hard to get a clear answer about whether any particular operating systems are better for certain applications and vertical markets. For IT managers, the primary concerns are the ability to find skills, ease of upgrading to Web applications, and the automation of critical business functions, regardless of whether they are in manufacturing, finance, banking, retail or any of the other verticals. Unfortunately, the dominance of, or preference for any particular operating system is often the result of historical events rather than technical superiority. For example, the Mac O/S is still the main platform for graphic designers and in the media industry, despite the fact that the Wintel environment offers highly comparable features and facilities. This enclave for Mac developed mainly because of whimsy and tradition, rather than for sound technical reasons.

Making a choice

The choice between Unix and NT is also often emotional and based on historical personal preferences and not on objective, technical or rational arguments. New operating systems invariably face a challenge to establish themselves against encumbrance, and although product marketing managers for operating systems may target specific verticals, the issue of choosing the best operating system for a particular vertical is a red herring. The factors governing choice transcend vertical markets, and although there is some comfort in choosing one used by others in your sector, it should not be the deciding factor.

Nevertheless, the desire for conformity and standardisation has led to the current situation of Wintel domination on the desktop, although there are a great many who would prefer to use an alternative if they could. The great strength of Wintel is that it can be used with any operating system ‘behind it’ on a server or mainframe, and is often only passed over when a true multi-user multi-tasking environment is required. The choice of operating system is also, rightly or wrongly, inextricably linked to the hardware brand and the software application. As Mike Bennett, technical manager at NCD says, "Businesses choose the application they require and implement the hardware infrastructure that is necessary to deliver that application to the users’ desktops." Today, for those seeking an operating system to be the mainstay for critical applications, the choice is most usually between Unix and NT, with Solaris and AS/400 still taking significant chunks of the market, and new challenges coming from Monteray, Bluetooth, Symbian and CE for the large system and small handheld and embedded system markets respectively.

The AS/400 – a reliable choice?

Although NT is growing in reputation, and despite the lemming factor in its selection, Unix sales continue to be strong and for many IT managers Unix is still the preferred choice when reliability, scalability, availability, manageability and indestructibility are essential. NCD’s Beckett says, "The AS/400 is still recognised as providing powerful data storage and retrieval capabilities but there are similar and potentially cheaper ways to achieve the same functionality." According to Beckett, "The client/server model of computing has more recently changed from a two tier model to a more flexible three tier model giving the much needed benefits to the business of utilising existing architecture and investment."

This view is echoed by Andy Rendell at Midas, an IT services company. He says, "In today’s environment it is very often the application that drives the hardware platform which in turn drives the operating system, therefore it is difficult to categorically say which is better for what vertical market. The suitability of the application is what drives the operating system choice, along with historical investment." Beckett adds, "There is no vertical market in which Microsoft has not penetrated at the desktop."

"Vertical markets that rely on transaction-based processing require a particularly robust and reliable hardware platform and operating system, and the AS/400 is a prime candidate in that situation," continues Midas’ Rendell. "Just as a PC network is not appropriate if you are trying to support many hundreds of users running a mission-critical application. It is a case of what the application is trying to do and the size of the enterprise, rather than the specific vertical market that the business is working in."

Clear trends

Steve Swatman, direct business development manager at Sterling Software, has experience of ‘every conceivable platform’. He says that the Sterling Software Application Development Group works mainly with MVS for FTSE100 level customers, AS/400 in the midrange and NT for the real-time embedded application market. "Our experience is that the platform chosen is a function of the complexity, criticality, volume, security and manageability requirements of the application, and the personal preferences of the decision-maker rather than the industry they work in."

However, there are some clear trends. According to Swatman, "The real-time embedded market, where NT dominates, is typically a project-driven mentality where IT is a central function. Decisions are made by project owners, who may own the overall design of the product." He says that defence, telcos, electronics and aerospace are typical of this bracket. "These companies often deliver their own products with embedded software, which is the software part of the customer proposition rather than the software responsible for running the business."

Speed to market is a top priority for these companies, without any compromise on quality. They also have complex application requirements, and are driven by application performance rather than the number of users, and the ability to deal with high data or transaction volumes. "Documentation, traceability and audit trails are essential to these companies," says Swatman, who believes that the customers in this group have a critical maintenance responsibility to their customers. "The decision as to which operating system is based on technical desirability and preferences rather than management acceptance," says Swatman, "and it is shifting from Unix to NT."

Fan club mentality

The characteristics of IT managers and decision-makers in vertical markets which opt for NT are often driven by a sense of safety in numbers. Swatman says, "We find that the majority in the software development industry, such as software houses, opt for NT, mainly because of the ease of support." He adds that buyers often perceive that they are participating in an ‘open’ ecosystem. On the other hand, the FTSE100 enterprise scale market is typified by mature businesses which are often undergoing fundamental changes. "They often have high levels of IT complexity, with large volumes of data and a culture of risk management," says Swatman. "Decisions in this group are often based on management preferences rather than technical acceptance, and the choice is often MVS or enterprise-scale Unix, including Solaris."

"We find that the AS/400 is the preferred choice in firms which have a packaged software focus, are small to medium sized, and regard IT as a necessary evil," says Sterling Software’s Swatman. "The decision is frequently based on management preference and the technical managers have to accept the non-technical board directors’ decision. In these cases the IT they get is closer to the business objectives rather than those of the technical purists." He adds that there is often a ‘fan club’ mentality surrounding the AS/400 – a sense of belonging to a small and loyal community. "The manufacturing industry is the largest for the AS/400 operating system, because they have the ‘our business is making widgets not running software’ kind of mentality."

Predictive Performance Management

Although cost and reliability clearly play a significant part in the choice of application building blocks, performance and the ability to cope with the demands of e-commerce are the most significant factors. Tim Waterton, VP of modelling software company Simulus, says that one way to select the most desirable operating system is to use ‘predictive performance management’ (PMM) techniques. "PMM offers a way to examine a variety of operating systems using simulation and testing models, to make sure that the operating system selected is the best for that particular enterprise in their vertical market, bearing in mind the specific requirements and demands of that market." Organisations using PMM can investigate the performance of each operating system and processor type. "All this can be accomplished in minutes by using software," says Waterton. "An IT manager could, for example, consider the relative performance merits of his application running on HP/UX on a V class processor as opposed to Solaris on an E10000. Or he could evaluate HP/UX on a V10 against HP/UX on a V11." Waterton says that the key benefit of a software modelling approach is that IT managers can cut their spending on expensive test systems and no longer need to rely on independent benchmark data.

"The most significant point is that while particular vertical market sectors run similar types of applications, the range of applications within any one sector is considerable, and each of these have different requirements and characteristics. Each IT manager is asking what his response times will be when he deploys his application on this configuration," says Waterton. "We can meet this challenge by configuring general purpose models to provide detailed representations of the customer’s application and using system support packs to provide a knowledge base of information for assessing that application’s performance on different operating systems."

The dominating OS

The view from IBM is that the operating system picture will continue to be heterogeneous with no one system dominating in any vertical market. "This is the case today," says Adam Jollans, IBM EMEA software manager, "and we expect to see a mixture of S/390, AS/400, AIX, Monteray, Solaris, Wintel and Linux to continue across all the vertical markets."

The reason for this, says Jollans, is that existing data and applications are already on these operating systems, and there is little reason to move to another. He continues, "We have found that banks and insurance enterprises tend to store prime data centrally to give the highest reliability and availability, and to enable anywhere/anytime access from remote and brand desktops. These enterprises frequently have Wintel on the desktop. Industries which depend on specific applications, such as manufacturing, government and publishing tend to choose the application first and then the platform decision follows, and are just seeking a platform such as AS/400 or RS/6000 which just sits in the background and works reliably. Enterprises moving into e-commerce activity and who need reliability, availability and security opt for Unix or mainframes because those characteristics are proven, while websites are often based on Unix, Linux or NT." Jollans adds that Linux is proving particularly attractive to the education, government and research sectors, because of its low cost and reputation for reliability. "There is no doubt that Win2K is going to be a major player, but not the only player. Interoperability between Win2K and Unix, mainframes and other operating systems is key to its success, and that is an important point to make," says IBM’s Jollans.

Even DOS still has a place. The NCC’s annual IT user survey revealed that while the IT and finance sectors are most likely to be running Wintel, the distribution sector is most likely to still be running a DOS-based system. Diane Finn, head of membership for the NCC says that the survey showed a decline in the use of Mainframes, although 95% of large companies will retain a central mainframe or Unix-based server. "Another major finding was the expectation by 63% of companies to be using thin client technology in the next two years. This was mainly on a piece-meal rather than an enterprise-wide basis," she adds.

An old favourite

Although all the major systems have been mentioned, there is another established and proven operating system which dates from the seventies which is still a player – Pick; previously an operating system in its own right and now a database technology that runs across all platforms and environments. Nigel Town, UK country manager of Pick Systems, says, "The whole concept of differentiating operating systems according to vertical markets is outdated and doesn’t reflect reality. Any supplier attempting to differentiate in terms of functionality and suitability for particular vertical markets has seriously missed the boat, and any IT manager making a choice because of loyalty to an operating system should be on the next boat!" The days of the hardware or operating systems zealot are gone, says Town, and the question of which operating system is being used should not be an issue. "Given the universal requirements for reliable, fast access to information, the nature, source, location, or orientation of the operating system should not be a concern," he adds.

"The operating system needs to be able to function in a completely open way, as a commodity layer, so there is no hardware lock-in, but there is low cost per seat and offering proper cross platform integration," says Pick Systems’ Town. "The issues transcend vertical market considerations," he adds. "The choice of operating system should be on the basis that it brings something extra to you, and does not force you to throw anything away." However, Town adds that for his money, Linux is the best long-term bet.