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Linux to surpass Unix ‘within five years’ – Caldera

Here's how

Something funny happened on the way to the Forum. The lady who has sustained journalists with a fine expresso at SCO's annual get-together from the Cowell Room at UCSC was missing, along with many familiar faces from Fora passim. We only hope our absent SCO friends haven't ended up under the foundations of the new Students Union building on campus.

Of course it's no longer called SCO Forum. Since Caldera swallowed the Santa Cruz Operation's Unix business, it's simply The Forum. And instead of hearing SCO try and convince the world that they need to know about a declining Unix-on-Intel, Scaldera now has the task of convincing the world that it needs a declining commercial Unix-on-Intel as well as its own Linux distro.

We jest.

If you follow the public prints, SCO's perennially unfashionable Unix has been on the brink of expiring for the past fourteen years - ever since Microsoft relinquished Xenix. And if we were to add up the number of emails from ex-SCO users who've defected to [delete where applicable] Coherent/Novell/Windows NT/Linux, then we'd discover that SCO's user base at one time exceeded the number of the total number of PCs shipped by a factor of about three.

For the uninitiated, Microsoft co-developed a cheap and cheerful garage port of Unix in the eighties (yes, Microsoft - and Unix - in the same sentence) with the Santa Cruz Operation which was marketed under the name Xenix. It didn't sell, or at least didn't sell in sufficient numbers for Redmond's taste, but after SCO took the business off Microsoft's hands - at around the time of the great OS/2 schism - it became the most popular and visible Unix port of them all. There's probably a SCO Unix in every mall or high street in the West.

Whines in the pines

SCO users do like to grumble, but the financials show that the user base is remarkably resilient. In fact, it's almost recession proof, which must have appealed to Caldera which just in the nick of time, successfully bid for the business.

As we pointed out at the time, that left SCO buying a technology it had promised to make obsolete. Or as Caldera's April Q-10 SECC filing put it, it owned "products with duplicative functionality".

Indeed. When Caldera launched in the UK four years ago, it aimed both barrels at SCO's Open Server, telling us that it represented the low hanging fruit for its own OpenLinux distro. All of a sudden, Open Server accounts for over 80 per cent of Caldera's software revenue. But we suspect the good Caldera folk are mightily relieved to have their hands on that income, for if Caldera hadn't made the bid a year ago, it would by now be a classic bubble economy basket case. Linux-era Caldera has historical debts over $70 million, and according to the most recent quarterly figures reaped $1.5 million of income from Linux at the cost of $12m in costs.

Now, overnight, Caldera has quadruped in size and the once-derided Open Server brings it a steady cash cow, even though the overall balance sheet is colored red. SCO's Unix revenues last quarter were $23.5 million, with a net loss of $830,000: much healthier figures than Caldera's erstwhile Linux-only business. And showing us how it can turn that black has been Caldera's priority this week.

It's made a positive start simply by hosting the Forum. Last year Caldera execs couldn't promise that the eighteen year tradition would continue. After dischuffed SCO channel partners such as this one made their feelings known, many of its partners will be delighted at the nod to continuity.

Codenames ahoy

Caldera's strategy now looks like this. De-emphasize UnixWare (now branded Open UNIX™ - with a space) as a datacentre candidate, but continue to sell it on its strength as a Linux application host, using the native LKP (Linux Kernel Personality) layer. Layer's perhaps the wrong word: it's native code. Make OpenServer more Linux-friendly. And most of all, get paid for the value add stuff in OpenLinux: the Volution management services which alongside a new messaging package, now comes under the umbrella Vizier. Caldera wants you to think of this as BackOffice for Linux, with similar ease of administration.

Caldera is alone amongst the Linux distros in demanding a client side royalty. (The base download continues to be free to registered developers). This fee, CEO Ransom Love told us, is justified by Caldera's stamp of certification, and access to the extras such as Volution.

"Subscription is a great model," says Love, but he's deeply sceptical about leasing.

Open Server regains some respectability. For a few years, SCO has sought to put Open Server in maintenance mode, nudging customers towards to UnixWare. But the next revision of Open Server codenamed 'Harvey West' will gain USB support, a GNU toolchain, SAMBA and ACPI BIOS support, and is to be dubbed 'Portable Open Server'. Smartly, Caldera has recognized that the ancient Open Server customers are crucial in moving the company from a proprietary Unix-on-Intel to a Linux Intel business. Harvey West is slated for release in the second half of next year.

The next 'Borealis' release of UnixWare gets only comparative tweaks. The recently released version features the 'Linux Kernel Personality', which is SCO's better Linux than Linux project we covered a year ago. Caldera showed slides in which Linux applications on UnixWare bested standalone 'native' Linux configurations, which our friends at Linux Journal labs have corroborated. Thanks to very fine grained multi-threading and the Veritas file system, UnixWare offers up to four times the performance of native Linux boxes.

"In two to five years Linux will surpass where Unix is now," reckon Caldera.

Having acquired the Unix-on-Intel franchise, then, Caldera has bravely declared the franchise obsolete. The task its set itself is persuading its customers that they'll be obsoleted more gracefully by remaining inside the tent than out. ®

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