Suns Linux Plan Extends Support

Shifting strategy mystifies customers.

John Loiacono

Sun Microsystems Inc., which has tried various strategies for its Solaris and Linux operating systems on x86 hardware, has crafted a plan that calls for expanded support for third-party products.
The plan, announced last week, will have Sun support several standard Linux distributions rather than a single Sun-customized version.
Sun will also release this year a new class of hardware and expand support for x86 hardware to other vendors, said John Loiacono, vice president of Suns operating platforms group, at a Sun town meeting here.

The Santa Clara, Calif., company has no plans to support Linux or Solaris on Intel Corp. Itanium processors but is evaluating Advanced Micro Devices Inc.s forthcoming Opteron processor because of its backward 32-bit compatibility, Loiacono said. Sun is also focusing on its Project Orion, which will integrate the components of the Sun ONE application stack into Solaris over time and which will also be available on Linux.

For some Sun customers, the companys Linux strategy is a moving target.

"[Suns strategy is] still very muddy," said John Groenveld, an associate research engineer at Penn State Universitys Applied Research Laboratory, in State College, Pa. "I think its a work in progress."

ARL runs low-end and high-end Sun SPARC systems. Groenveld said the mistakes made by Sun over the past few years have not gone unnoticed. For example, he cited the uncertainty Sun created last year around whether the company would ship a version of Solaris 9 for x86, which it did.

"Im also deeply troubled by the upcoming enterprise Linux client, known as Project Mad Hatter," said Groenveld. "This project involves bundling StarOffice, Ximian [Inc.]s corporate office productivity applications and some call center applications with a Java Smart Card reader. Im concerned that it will compete with Suns existing Sun Ray thin-client business."

Alan DuBoff, president of consultancy Software orchestration Inc., in San Jose, Calif., agreed that Sun has made mistakes, particularly around its Linux strategy, which initially was "confusing and not that well thought out."

"To be honest," DuBoff added, "I still do not completely understand their Linux strategy, but I am becoming more confident in their Solaris x86 strategy the more I hear about it."

That said, customers do welcome Suns support of standard Linux distributions and an expanded x86 hardware line. Penn States Groenveld said the company appeared to be slowly "waking up to the fact" that its customers are not looking for Linux solutions but rather inexpensive 32-bit x86 solutions. "For a company that has been so tied to its SPARC architecture, this is a monumental achievement," Groenveld said.

Suns Loiacono is confident the company is up to the challenge. "I am aware of the customer skepticism out there, but, over time, customers will see that we are committed to this strategy," he said.