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Ontario Technoblog

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Think UNIX? Think Microsoft?

If you subscribe to any IT magazine, you've probably seen the fold out ads, which trumpet how MegaCorp (the company varies) is running business critical operations affecting untold numbers of users.

Open the foldout, and you'll see that they're using Microsoft Windows Server, instead of Linux, to accomplish this.

Linux is of course the latest UNIX variant to become popular within the IT community, but let's look back at a UNIX variant that was popular over twenty years ago...sold by Microsoft.

Xenix was a version of the Unix operating system, licensed by Microsoft from AT&T in the 1980s. The Santa Cruz Operation (SCO) later acquired exclusive rights to the software, and eventually began distributing it as SCO UNIX.

Ooh, the bad guys.

Xenix was Microsoft's version of Unix intended for use on microprocessors, but they called it Xenix because it could not license the "UNIX" name.

Microsoft purchased a license for Version 7 Unix from AT&T in 1979, and announced on August 25, 1980 that it would make it available for the 16-bit microcomputer market.

Xenix varied from its 7th Edition origins by incorporating elements from BSD, and soon possessed the most widely installed base of any Unix flavour due to the popularity of the inexpensive x86 processor....

Version 2.0 of Xenix was released in 1985 and was based on UNIX System V. An update numbered 2.1.1 added support for the Intel 80286 processor. Subsequent releases improved System V compatibility.

When Microsoft entered into an agreement with IBM to develop OS/2, it lost interest in promoting Xenix. In 1987 Microsoft transferred ownership of Xenix to SCO in an agreement that left Microsoft owning 25% of SCO....

Microsoft continued to use Xenix internally, submitting a patch to support functionality in UNIX to AT&T in 1987, which trickled down to the code base of both Xenix and SCO UNIX. Microsoft is said to have used Xenix on Sun workstations [1] and VAX minicomputers extensively within their company as late as 1992.

In the late 1980s, Xenix was, according to Samuel J. Leffler et al. in The Design and Implementation of the 4.3BSD UNIX Operating System (1989), "probably the most widespread version of the UNIX operating system, according to the number of machines on which it runs" (p. 7).


That was then. This is now:

Microsoft stunned LinuxWorld attendees...by pledging to support Linux virtual machines on its Virtual Server and revealing free virtual machine additions for Red Hat Linux and Novell SUSE Linux. It wasn't the only dogs-playing-with-cats kind of moment...: Apple offered up software to let Windows run on Intel-based Macs.

What's going on here? The answer is virtualization, the ability to much more easily carve up servers and PCs into compartments that can run multiple applications under different operating systems at the same time. Business interest in virtualization--particularly of servers--is picking up quickly, and vendors are racing to stake out this emerging market. The result could blur some of the hard-and-fast lines drawn between operating systems....

Microsoft's support for an operating system that rivals its lifeblood Windows is the most surprising development. In the past, it was possible to run Linux machines under Windows, but companies were on their own if problems arose. Support of Linux virtual machines running under Windows is a sign that Microsoft recognizes it's a heterogeneous world--companies, especially big ones, aren't all Windows. But it's also a defensive play to keep from losing the virtualization market to VMware or open source options as Microsoft tries to get its act together....

Microsoft's hand may have been forced. VMware, the EMC-owned market leader in virtualization software, started giving away VMware Server in February. VMware Server allows Windows or Linux to be hosted on an x86 server under Windows or any other operating system. The Xen 3.0 open source software takes advantage of virtualization hooks planted in the newest Intel and Advanced Micro Devices chips to enable the creation of a Windows or Linux virtual machine--or both--on the latest generation of x86 servers. Virtual Iron Software said last week it's abandoning its proprietary hypervisor and basing the 3.0 version of its policy-based management software for virtual machines on Xen....

Microsoft also wants its name on that list, as it expands its Systems Center tools. Companies "want the same tools to manage their virtual environments as are managing their physical ones" in the data center, says Jim Ni, group product manager for Windows Server marketing. To do so, Microsoft must produce its own hypervisor, virtualization software that functions like a microkernel operating system on top of a microprocessor, interpreting a Windows or Linux instruction from a virtual machine into the compiled language the chip can understand....

Microsoft plans to produce a hypervisor inside the upcoming Windows Longhorn server, scheduled for 2007, Ni says.

That lag, and Microsoft's history, may work against it in luring customers that want to run Linux virtual machines. "Microsoft is going to be very late to the game and will need to overcome a presumption that it will favor Windows," says Gordon Haff, virtualization analyst at Illuminata.

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