Sun tries to outdo Linux

Sun Microsystems might be pitching Solaris 10 as "10 moves ahead", but the server vendor still has some convincing to do if customers are to make those moves.

At Solaris 10's public unveiling in November, Sun made it clear that there is a lot riding on this latest iteration of its Unix-based operating system. It has been 3,000 man-years and $500 million in the making, and analysts are saying its 600 new features make it the biggest leap forward for Solaris since the mid-1990s. Most crucially, though, after over a decade of charging big bucks for Solaris licences, Sun has decided to give all this away for free.

Instead of licence fees, it hopes to make money on maintenance and support contracts charged on a subscription model. Sun likens the approach to a mobile phone contract, where the handset is given away for free in order to provide a constant revenue stream from the use of the service.

Whether Sun will make money on this is still up for debate, but experts argue that many of the Solaris 10 features are certainly worth paying for – albeit indirectly. Solaris now has "military-grade" security built in as standard.

“The grand design of using a free Solaris to save its Unix server business looks suspiciously like a ‘plan A’.”

And its ‘container' technology is a more sophisticated virtualisation tool than any on the market, able to divide one server so that it can run hundreds or even thousands of applications, says Mike Thompson, an analyst at IT industry watcher, the Butler Group. He notes this is particularly useful when coupled with Solaris' D-Trace performance analysis and diagnosis and self-healing abilities, which remove some of the management overheads usually associated with dynamic partitioning. With even the highest estimates suggesting typical CPU utilisation is no more than 20%, containers could allow Solaris customers to do away with two thirds of their servers.

Such functionality puts it above Linux and both HP and IBM's Unix flavours, says Thompson. This Solaris release could allow Sun to corner the proprietary Unix market currently led by IBM, he adds, agreeing with Sun executives that IBM's AIX and HP-UX will wither as their parent companies throw themselves deeper into the Linux community.

Free Solaris

Sun is drawn to Linux's collaborative development process, which means development costs are significantly lowered, even if that means giving up intellectual property ownership.

But Sun is promising to go down that route too – at least some of the way. The company says it will open up Solaris' source code to community development, but its aim is to keep Solaris intact. As a result, it is unlikely to release the software under the standard open source licence, the GPL, which would allow elements of Solaris to be cannibalised by Linux.

While its enthusiasm for the open source community may be limited, Sun is significantly upping its attempts to woo Linux users. It is doing everything it can to smooth the passage of Linux users (back) to Sun: making the cost structure identical and allowing Linux applications to run natively on Solaris via its Janus emulation software. Like the Roman god, Sun is attempting to face both ways by acknowledging the power of Linux while competing with it head on, rather than taking the IBM or HP route – a braver, if riskier, strategy.

Existing Sun customers are likely to take analysts' advice and upgrade, and the advanced functionality may well cause some churn within the proprietary Unix arena. But Sun's real target with this new release is to halt the migration of those running Solaris on its own SPARC chipset to Linux on Intel's x86 line – the cheaper alternative which users claim has the ability to avoid the kind of vendor lock-in they experience on Sun's proprietary platforms.

When Sun says it is targeting Linux, however, it means it is principally targeting Linux's leading vendor, Red Hat. Thompson believes that the partnership of IBM and SuSE, the world's second largest Linux vendor (and European leader), is too solid to challenge, while HP's Linux customers, mostly using the Debian distribution, do not offer a sufficiently large opportunity. But by moving to a support-only subscription model, Sun has put itself on a level footing with Red Hat in terms of price comparisons. The resulting competitive fray will make fascinating viewing.

Gartner analysts have accused Sun of being a company "with no plan A but lots of plan Bs". The grand design of using free Solaris to save its Unix server business looks suspiciously like a ‘plan A'. But this time, there is no fall back position, as moving aggressively into the x86/Linux server market will not provide it with the necessary differentiation or volume to take on and beat IBM, HP or Dell.

Avatar photo

Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

Related Topics