Hamilton--Which Server Will Serve Best?
I admit it. I am a UNIX bigot. Having come to the printing industry from the computer side—they called it "data processing" back then—I took a dim view of other operating systems.
That was back in 1989. Of course, I have had to eat my words on more than one occasion since then, attacked on one side by Macintosh evangelists (zealots?) and, later, Windows NT folks on the other.
For those of you who aren't up on the latest in UNIX, this operating system was initially developed by Bell Labs back in the '70s. Ma Bell did not commercialize it because of antitrust concerns and published the core code, or kernel, which was picked up by the academic community and developed into several varieties that are now in widespread use. Among these are Berkeley UNIX (used by both Sun and HP), Carnegie Mellon Mach, Digital UNIX, IBM AIX and SCO UNIX, to name just a few. There was even a "war" over whose flavor should become the "standard."
The key features of all UNIX operating systems are: the ability to handle multiple transactions, run more than one application at one time and take advantage of multiple processors for higher throughput.
However, the desktop computing revolution, led technically by Apple and financially by Microsoft, moved things away from the propeller heads and into the hands of the "rest of us." This was driven both by the complexity of UNIX, as well as the demographics of the graphic communications industries—as it is primarily populated by small, creative work groups with neither the technical capabilities nor the financial wherewithal to deal with UNIX systems.
Of course, Apple Computer rightly rules the roost in the publishing and printing markets. Not only did it develop an integrated system that appealed to right-brain types, Apple has consistently integrated the tools for desktop publishing and prepress into its OS. Most significant among these have been embedding Color-Sync at the OS level and, now, supporting PDF at the system level. Despite its elegance and performance, however, the Macintosh is still first and foremost a personal computer.
Though individual workstations have worked well in what are, essentially, analog workflows, the problems grow with the implementation of all-digital workflows. Sneakernet may work for some environments, but it is not an efficient model for migrating to a data-centric methodology for prepress and printing.
Next Stage of Evolution
We are now coming to the next stage of computing evolution, that of the networked world and client-server computing. For us, this a blessing because publishing and printing are, at the core, collaborative enterprises that require input from multiple parties multiple times prior to going to press. And it is a necessary condition for printing companies that plan to evolve into communications services providers.
The question is which way to go.
Windows NT has made considerable inroads in the graphic communications industry. Not only does this OS provide network support for the Macintosh right out of the box, virtually all the RIPs run under NT, as do the popular OPI and database applications. Perhaps more compelling, this OS excels at handling the low-volume, large-file network transactions that are the bread and butter of graphic arts shops. And while it's not the most stable operating system, administration is relatively simple. Finally, it's cheap: You can run it on inexpensive hardware and a myriad of third-party peripherals that cost significantly less than their UNIX counterparts.
Before you hand over your cash to Bill Gates and Andy Grove, however, it's important to remember that the Internet is built on UNIX. Despite the gains made by NT, UNIX is clearly the performance leader, especially as network traffic increases, with scalability that is beyond the grasp of NT. That's one reason why many high-end prepress shops have stayed with UNIX (Crosfield, Hell, Scitex and Screen were all UNIX-based CEPS) for servers, while migrating to the Mac for clients. And while it requires greater technical expertise for admin, you get what you pay for in terms of features—and the stability of this OS is rock solid.
For those not inclined to shell out for high-end SGI or Sun servers, there's an inexpensive alternative: Linux. This is the shareware version of OSF UNIX that runs on the same hardware as NT. Linux is exceeding expectations of many in the IT world and is reportedly already running on 30 percent of all Web servers. One reason for its popularity is that software developers can easily port their applications to run under Linux. As a result, there will be a lot more prepress software available for this OS in the very near future.
And now we have Apple releasing OS/X, which combines several different flavors of UNIX (Mach and BSD). While it's too early to tell how well this technology will fare in the overall marketplace, Apple will certainly gain share in our world from shops that want to stick with a familiar platform and vendor.
While it's tempting to pick winners and losers in the server wars, my guess is that the market will break into segments according to the size of the shop and the volume of work it puts through the tubes. There's little doubt that Microsoft and Intel will dominate the small shops and that the major operations will stick with UNIX.
More interesting to see is how Linux and OS/X perform. While neither is likely to make a dent in Bill Gates' cash flow, my guess is that they will continue to gain more converts from NT than from UNIX.
About the Author
Alex Hamilton, a former technical editor with Printing Impressions, is president of Computers & Communications Consulting, which specializes in digital technologies for printing and publishing. He can be reached at (215) 247-3461 or by e-mail at email@example.com.