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Career Advisor by Edgar Saadi

NT or not NT?

NT's hot, but does it have legs as a career alternative?

November  1995
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As Microsoft NT continues to reap publicity, a reader asks whether he will be forced to abandon Unix as a career. Answer: NT has grown into a nice career option, but Unix endures -- the future holds opportunity for both. (1,200 words)

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Dear Edgar, I would like to know what software skills will be in demand over the next few years. I have 20 years programming experience on Unix and more than eight in the X Window System. I keep thinking any year now Unix will take off like MS Windows, but I just don't know. With NT and Win95 coming on strong, I don't think Unix will ever spread out now. Should I just keep to my first love of Unix/X, or should I tool up for MS Windows and NT too? I love Unix, but I also need to eat.

Unix Lover

Dear Unix Lover, Although I am a die-hard Unix fan like yourself, I must give credence to the growing power and popularity of the Windows operating systems. They are graphical, easy to use, and provide the backdrop for most of the world's leading-edge software and hardware development. The Microsoft way of doing things is certainly here to stay; but then again, so is Unix. Unix's future is not necessarily summed up in a binary win/lose proposition. The industry has proven that the two can and will coexist peacefully -- across systems and across markets.

The next best thing
Though NT stepped onto the industry stage a few years back, some see it as today's only viable competitor with Unix in the big-money, big-business, heterogeneous, distributed environments. With its graphical interface and the look and feel of Windows, it represents the new age of operating systems. And the fact that it meshes seamlessly with Windows on the front end makes it a very enticing option -- no need to rig up software solutions to allow the operating systems to communicate. It seems, however, that NT is simply not a powerful or tested enough system to supplant Unix in the high-end server environment.

For a while NT sat in the corner as most businesses took a wait-and-see attitude. Though an untested operating system might be worth trying on a small network, it would take a lot of faith to entrust a thousand workstations to it. Rather, NT-based PC's are beginning to replace Unix boxes for high-end or power workstations. The reasons? Comfort, software, and price. Many users need the power of their current Unix workstations, but want their computer to look like their PC at home and run the same wide array of off-the-shelf software. And PC's are simply less expensive hardware for these users.

NT is not yet found in the big production environments, but there is a lot of application porting going on, as companies slowly move from a wait-and-see attitude to one of "touch and feel." Big businesses, however, will not dump Unix from their hard drives any time soon. It is in the medium-sized companies where the networking capabilities of NT will be explored. With fewer users and demands on their systems, they will experiment for many of the same reasons that corporate giants are using it on the desktop -- it's friendly, familiar, and well-supported.


But Unix is here to stay
In the meantime, Unix is still the most powerful, extensible operating system in the known universe. It is hardy, robust, resilient, and supports multi-users and multitasking like no other system. It is tried, tested, and if you have the right people maintaining it, highly efficient. For those who know what they're doing, Unix is far faster than the fun-but-clumsy mouse work of Windows. And Unix has its own point-and-click GUI interface if your users prefer that. The de-facto standard for networking, Unix effortlessly supports new users, new nodes, new networks. The Internet, the most extensive network of networks, grew atop Unix and reflects the operating system in its complex, organic personality. The end result is that Unix effectively ushered in the client/server age; or rather, provided the soil in which it could grow.

Perhaps Unix's greatest credit is that it's a time-tested operating system. When at company wants to update or roll out a networked system of 5,000 units, they will most probably not turn to a newly released Microsoft operating system. They know Unix can do the job, and do it well. On the server side, you are sure to find a flavor of Unix that suits you. But on the front end users demand tools, applications, and ease of use. Many want to guide their mice through Windows. It is for this reason that Unix will be increasingly phased out of the front-end scene.

The success of products is being more and more dictated by the end-users who have the money but not the time or interest to learn computer systems. Windows is easy. Most of the world's end-users would take any graphical interface before a text-only, black-and-white screen. They see it as old, passe, and inferior. This does not necessarily mean that Unix will be similarly taken down on the back-end. The technology and the industry have shown that the two operating systems can and will co-exist.

Tool up for new opportunities
Your Unix skills will not go to waste, but will in fact mesh very well with an understanding of the newer, more popular, light-duty operating systems. Unix engineers may in fact be in a the best position to move into the widening field of NT development. There will soon be a great need for NT software and systems programmers to work on the early design phases, infrastructures, and tool development kits for this new area. Who better to lend their expertise than Unix engineers who understand the granddaddy of high-powered networking systems?

If you love Unix, but also love to eat, then tool up a bit on MS Windows and NT to increase your technical marketability. You don't need to abandon Unix.


Pencom adds NT

Though Pencom has built its business on Unix, we are convinced that NT will continue to garner a larger share of the marketplace. Thus, the formation of PNT (Pencom NT), a group which specializes on keeping track of the new technology and staffing projects in which it is implemented.

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