SAN FRANCISCO — While the battle between Microsoft Corp. and the open-source software movement dominates headlines, another phenomenon is shaping the marketplace — at least for servers used by businesses.
It turns out the dueling approaches to software development are both gaining momentum at the expense of Sun Microsystems Inc. and other companies that customize hardware and develop unique flavors of the Unix operating system.
Hewlett-Packard Co., for one, builds servers based on Unix, open-source Linux and Microsoft Windows, fulfilling the demands of customers who are often passionate about one choice or the other, said Rick Becker, HP’s chief technology officer for software.
HP sees no conflicts in satisfying both camps as customers seek the lower cost and improving capabilities of industry-standard hardware. That spells trouble for makers of custom servers, including Sun and International Business Machines Corp.
“People are leaving proprietary ... systems and moving to industry standards,” Becker said Monday in a presentation to technology writers and editors from The Associated Press.
He was joined by Larry Augustin, chairman of VA Software Corp. and Doug Miller, director of Unix migration strategy in Microsoft’s server products group.
Though the speakers agreed that industry-standard hardware is gaining strength, they disagreed on the merits of proprietary software such as Microsoft Windows over open-source Linux.
In recent months, Microsoft has toned down criticism of open-source software, which is distributed with its programming code attached and often lets customers change it to their needs.
Two years ago, chief executive Steve Ballmer likened it to cancer. Now, the software giant says it wants to ensure that its products play well with Linux and other open-source solutions based on standards.
“When vendors agree to a particular standard, everybody wins,” Miller said. “It doesn’t matter what model you use. If you adhere to standards, it’s possible for everyone to get along very nicely and build a number of solutions that are compatible with each other.”
Recent forecasts from the research firm IDC suggest both Microsoft and Linux can win over the long run.
IDC predicts Linux hardware sales tripling to $6.5 billion in 2006 and Microsoft-based platforms increasing by nearly $5 billion to $19 billion. Still, IDC forecasts proprietary systems, such as Unix servers made by Sun, IBM and HP, will contribute about $27.7 billion.
HP’s Becker said much of the migration to date has been in the area of low-end servers, such as those that power Web sites.
Sun is not standing still. The Palo Alto-based company has begun selling Linux-based machines. IBM also is a major player in the Linux server business.
“They’re trying to stop the bleeding,” Becker said.
Linux is increasingly popular for businesses that have in the past run Sun’s Solaris and IBM’s AIX Unix operating systems. The reason is that Linux is a variant of Unix, with much the same feel and features.
Microsoft’s Windows operating system attracts customers who want an established name in the industry, Miller said.
“In these economic times, customers are taking a long-term view,” he said. “They can’t take risk. They need ... a platform that will be around for a long period of time.”
Becker said Linux also is breaking into the highest-end servers — those that handle financial transactions for Wall Street and manufacturing systems for industries.