The server OS: Present and future trends

ZDNet.co.uk research has provided some interesting insights about how server operating systems and management are developing
Written by Gary Flood, Contributor

What is the state of play when it comes to the development and management of server operating systems, and how is the landscape likely to change in the future?

According to a survey carried out by ZDNet.co.uk, the bottom line is that Linux and Windows are the prevalent platforms for the majority of companies and will take more market share from Unix in the future.

The survey also reveals that one of the most hyped technologies of the moment — virtualisation — is arguably still being talked about more than it's being employed, while cost and complexity mean that the server operating system (OS) as a 'plug and play' technology is still more aspiration than reality.

Compiled in May 2008, the research was based on responses from 195 ZDNet.co.uk readers. Respondents came from a variety of organisations, from small firms to large enterprises.

One of the main findings from the survey is that, if current trends continue, servers running anything other than Red Hat, Novell Suse or Windows Server will become increasingly rare. A clear majority of those surveyed, 81 percent, ran Windows Server, with Linux (of the Red Hat or Suse flavours) the next most used OS, at 50 percent. It is important to note, however, that the majority of respondents ran multiple operating systems, with 44 percent using only one server OS.

The ZDNet.co.uk survey provides an interesting counterpoint to other research in this area, according to analysts. "Though there are some interesting differences with our findings, this survey does seem to be a pretty good reflection of how we see server usage," says Chris Ingle, consulting and research director for systems at analyst group IDC.

One of the major findings of the research is that, in terms of importance to system managers, virtualisation was bottom of the list of server OS features, despite considerable hype around the technology. Far in front, in order of criticality for this group, were scalability, high reliability/failover, identity management and aggregation and account management.

However, when asked "What plans do you have for your servers in the next five years?", 'consolidation and virtualisation' emerged as the top answer, ahead of being 'green' and increased uptake of dual-core hardware.

"We found it interesting that nearly a third of respondents said they had plans to start virtualising their servers in the next five years, despite saying it was currently low on their priorities," says Gareth Hall, Microsoft's Windows Server product manager. "This suggests that we are beginning to see a change in attitude, with more people considering virtualisation as a sensible way to increase existing server productivity and cut costs."

In terms of IT budget, the financial resources of the respondents closely matched the budgets that would be expected for small firms and large enterprises. At the lower end, 23 percent of respondents said they had IT budgets of up to £10,000, while 20 percent said their budgets were between £10,000 and £50,000. Larger budgets were also represented, with 10 percent of respondents claiming IT budgets of greater than £10m. The mid-range perhaps found less representation here than in comparable research, as only 17 percent of respondents reported IT spend of between £100,000 and £500,000.

Respondents were mainly technical professionals working with servers every day. Twenty-three percent said they worked as IT consultants and 17 percent as network or systems administrators. These roles were followed by support, developer and project-management job functions.

The findings also showed that IT professionals are still struggling to get what they want from their servers. Asked what the main 'pain points' were for professionals working with server operating systems, respondents' replies included: "no standard management interfaces for [working with] mixed OS", "cost" and "unreliability". In fact, cost came up as the number-one issue in the majority of free-form responses (where people were not responding to a set question but offering their own, additional comment). Ease of management also proved an important issue, with one respondent claiming: "The level of expertise required to manage a simple [Microsoft Windows Small Business Server] server is dreadful".

The survey also contained some findings that, on first reading, seem unfavourable to server OS market leader Microsoft. According to the survey, only a minority of respondents have plans to migrate to Windows Server 2008 in the near future. When asked about their deployment plans in this area...

...only eight percent said they are using the new OS, while 41 percent claimed to have no plans to install it at all — although this group included Linux users with no Windows infrastructure. For those who did want to make the switch, 25 percent saw it happening in the next year, while 12 percent said they wouldn't be upgrading until 2009 or 2010. A further three percent said they were looking as far ahead as 2011.

IDC's Ingle thinks that the apparent reluctance to adopt Windows Server 2008 can be explained by a common perception that it is often best practice to wait for the first service pack when it comes to a new Microsoft product. However, he claims that, although this cautious approach isn't necessary with Windows Server 2008, that message has not got out to everyone yet. "There is very little evidence here, or elsewhere, that people want to migrate from Windows to Linux, for example. [Adoption of Windows Server 2008] will take a little while, and there is nothing here for Microsoft to panic about," he said.

Ingle also points out that, for those people using virtualisation software, Microsoft's product in this area, Microsoft Virtual Server (the Hyper-V hypervisor is due later this year), came in higher than he'd have expected, at 23 percent.

Some commentators have questioned whether virtualisation technologies should really be considered part of the server OS at all. Market leader VMware has done very well to date with standalone virtualisation technology. Even though open-source specialist Red Hat includes virtualisation software in its Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 server software, Joel Berman, director of product marketing for Red Hat, points out: "Virtualisation is more of an application than an OS feature, and one that fits well with reported interest here in cost reduction and consolidation."

Not surprisingly, given the inclusion, if only as a beta product, of its Hyper-V hypervisor in the recently launched Windows Server 2008, Microsoft has an alternative view of the relationship between the OS and the virtualisation-management software. "Virtualisation has long been a core part of server operating systems and this market is enjoying a fresh round of innovation. From speaking to our customers, we know that people now expect virtualisation capabilities from their server OS, " says Microsoft's Hall.

By integrating Hyper-V into Windows Server 2008, Microsoft customers are in a better position to manage their servers themselves, without having to drastically change their IT infrastructure, adds Hall.

However, IDC's Ingle claims that, at the moment, companies are more interested in scalable servers than virtualisation just for the sake of it. "You do virtualisation for positive reasons, not because it's an interesting technology," he says. "Virtualisation is clearly already in many of the datacentres in the study and is going to be a big factor in the majority of future plans. Yes, it is 11 out of 11 in a list of desired features for a server OS, but that's because it is more of a layer in the stack, not necessarily a core feature in a server operating system."

Addressing the issues of cost, manageability and servers being 'plug and play', Gerald Pfeifer, director of inbound product management at Novell, says that the ZDNet.co.uk research clearly shows customers are facing real issues in this area.

"It is striking the way cost and a focus on cost is such an issue for so many respondents," says Pfeifer "It still seems like a lot of work needs to be done in terms of consolidation and better operability, too. It is also clearly significant that 44 percent of this sample want to work with just one OS, not multiple ones."

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