Linux Casts Shadow Over Sun

Open standards offer a win-win situation.

Sun Microsystems has changed its mind on Linux more often than a 16-year-old flipping through outfits. Yet another shoe dropped at Sun with its announcement at the end of last month that it will be killing its Sun Linux 5.0 distribution.

Suns adventures with Linux say a lot about whats really important to the future of operating systems and of IT infrastructure in general. Technological commoditization is both desirable and inevitable in high-volume, low-margin markets. The selection of standard interfaces for commodity products is ultimately defined by whats most popular in the field, not by what a vendor chooses to offer or not offer. What also carries value is a brands power. Suns Linux flip-flops have resulted in a brand that doesnt yet mean much to Linux customers.

For example, in March 2002, Stephen DeWitt, vice president and general manager of content delivery and edge computing for Sun, said, "Our teams are involved in integration rather than development at the kernel level. But our Linux offering will be significantly more attractive than Red Hat." A year later, John Loiacono, vice president of Suns operating platforms group, told a different story about what buyers found attractive: "Our Sun Linux distribution is essentially Red Hat Linux with a few minor tweaks. ... But our customers told us they didnt want a standard distribution that had some tweaks, so I decided to fix the problem by simply supporting between two and four standard Linux distributions, though I have not as yet decided which these will be."

Now Sun is paying IBM, HP and Dell the compliment of doing as they do. It is adding value to what people want to use instead of trying to sell what it wants to sell.

Sun should consider further emulating IBM, which doesnt create an IBM-only Linux. Its active in the mainline kernel development process, submitting changes in the same way everyone else does. IBMs patches are regularly accepted by non-IBM Linux kernel maintainers. IBM thus ensures that every Linux distribution can run well on IBM hardware. Thats real openness.

Sun deserves credit for planning to offer several standard Linux distributions, providing choice among implementations of standard APIs. Taking the step means it will have to compete on the merits of its x86-based hardware. But Suns embrace of standard interfaces and commodity products is incomplete. The company promotes Lxrun, which lets many Linux applications run unmodified on Solaris, but the tool works only on x86 Solaris, another product Sun killed then resurrected. The sea change will occur when Sun supports Linux on most of its server product line.

Suns Linux shuffle shows again that support for commoditization is the new differentiation in IT infrastructure. Users can ride this trend by buying products with standard implementations and the right balance of expense, service and support. Thats a win-win situation.

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