Sun Steps Up Linux (Lightly)

ANALYSIS: Critics say Sun needs to evolve more quickly with its Linux-compatibility; Sun executives say stay tuned.

Sun Microsystems made strides this week with its Linux strategy, releasing updated Sun ONE compiler code for both its low-end SPARC and Intel's x86 platforms, and adopting common Linux distributions instead of pushing its own version.

But analysts also say the tech giant's overall Linux approach is still tentative and confusing in places, and needs to evolve more quickly.

Sun's Linux strategy "is a story of fits and starts, stops and turns that don't seem to play coherently with users that I talk to," said George Weiss, a Gartner analyst who covers Linux operating systems.

Weiss said as Linux increasingly scales up to major applications, such as Oracle's 9i RAC (real application cluster) deployments of cheaper server clusters, Sun needs to show its partners that it is moving to scale up its Linux-compatibility with its high-end products.

Sun executives, who last fall acknowledged their late entry to Linux-compatibility when they released LX50, its first Linux-based general-purpose server, say the only confusion about their strategy is with their competitors.

"That's fine with us," said Bill Roth, marketing manager for Sun. "In terms of the product lines, and our line up of appliances, we're investing where it makes sense."

In addition, Simon Phipps, Sun's chief technology evangelist, told a Linux on Wall Street conference in New York this week that Sun plans its "boldest move ever in Linux" this year, as he explained that Linux-compatibility is an integral part of the company's strategy with Solaris, its proprietary, high-end operating system.

Such a move regarding Solaris would be welcome, Weiss added. "To my way of thinking, Sun is still highly Solaris-centric. For Sun, Linux has meant only application type servers, simpler Web servers, things that don't require much scalability," he said. "This is causing a little bit of confusion in users' minds. You get the sense that, if you want mission-critical Unix capability, you should be going with Solaris."

By contrast, he added, IBM and HP have broader definitions of their Linux strategy.

HP has ported a lot of its Open View tools to the open-source communicy and it has worked around the Linux kernel in terms of making it a more robust operating environment, Weiss said. The Proliant platform HP acquired with Compaq is very strong in terms of market share, and IBM supports Linux across all of its hardware platforms, he added.

Stacey Quandt, an analyst following Linux and Open Source for Giga, a division of Forrester Research, noted that although Sun only rolled into the market with LX50, its first Linux-based general-purpose server in September of last year, the move was tactical.

"Sun has far more flexibility than many of its competitors given its sizeable Solaris installed footprint at the network edge to potentially increase their systems, software and services revenue. Tactically, the LX50 is the first indication in this direction."

But "from a strategic perspective, however, Sun's decision to restrict its 32-bit Linux/Solaris offering to a two-way network-edge platform will have to evolve."

The biggest reason, they note, is that demand for lower-cost Linux operating platforms is growing faster than some expected, including the financial services industry, where Sun's proprietary Solaris operating system is threatened by the cost-savings appeal of open-source systems.

Financial data provider Reuters' own Market Data System (RMDS), a platform used by thousands of traders in the financial services industry, is one example. The platform is now available on Intel-based HP ProLiant servers running Red Hat's Linux Advanced Server.

Reuters called the platform switch from Unix operating systems to a Linux open source system the "first major commercial example of the open systems movement in financial services thus far." Older as well as other versions of the RMDS platform run on Sun Solaris servers built for Unix operating systems.

Sun is still relegating its Linux (compatibility) only to low-end systems, for applications that run more at the edge of the network, Web serving, file and printing, Quandt said.

Single or dual Intel Pentium III processors aren't enough for the four-way systems needed to run major database applications on Linux operating systems, which is where Linux is going, she added.

But Quandt and Weiss both say Sun's SunFire low-cost server blade lines are very strong products.

Sun is "fighting back on the price front with the (low-end) V series systems," Weiss said. "They have a fairly well refreshed product line in the mid-range systems, and just announced couple more members of that family. Their target is to meet Intel's price and price performance level."

Sun's Phipps also said Sun plans to make an announcement in May about adding multi-architecture compatibility in its blade lines. And Sun also recently announced that it would begin using AMD processors in some of its blade servers.

Sun's Roth also noted that the carping about Sun's Linux commitment is just unfounded. The company has been contributing to the Linux kernel on three or four projects a year for the past six or seven years.

"In addition to the kernel level, we have donated more open source code to the Linux movement than any other commercial entity on planet, through the eight million lines of code with, and the millions with NetBeans and Grid Engine," he said.

Giga's Quandt noted that as the number of mission-critical applications that enterprises are deploying on Linux continues to grow (WebLogic, Oracle, WebSphere and DB2), Sun's entry LX50 servers won't be sufficient since many require the performance scalability of both four-way and eight-way systems.

But on the other hand, she added, Sun's LX50 was developed by Sun's Volume Systems Products group, "which is the same team that developed the overwhelmingly successful SunFire V880. This is an organization that knows how to bundle, package and move products in the high-volume segment of the server market."

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