Sun: A Better Linux?

A legally unencumbered UNIX license may come in handy.

Success is always one model year away. Scott McNealy may have spent 21 years guiding Sun Microsystems, but his early business training and first job, on the Corvette hardbody and finishing line, has had as much influence on the company as anything else.

My recent interview with McNealy brought to mind comparisons to the auto industry. Sun is something like the historical, vertically integrated Ford Motor Co. in offering an integrated solution, while the Wintel duopoly is more like the historical General Motors, with GM making the guts of the car and Fisher making the body.

There are virtues to the vertically integrated approach. Driving your company to get all the new features together for a series of regularly scheduled releases makes sense. You expect automakers to come out with a new model all at once. Sun strives for this. Being a customer of the

Wintel duopoly, however, requires study of Intels chip strategy as well as the upgrade plans of Microsoft. Its a bit like having to plan your engine purchase separately from that of your body and interior. The Sun approach can make it easier for IT pros to draw up their technology road maps and plan their technology budgets.

The desire to offer an integrated product line is evident in McNealys on-again, off-again attitude toward Linux. Initial disdain was replaced by cautious acceptance in the form of Suns Cobalt purchase a couple of years ago. At first, the Cobalt server was relegated to the edge of the network, but McNealy has since embraced Linux with more wholeheartedness.

Still, McNealy has a strong desire to keep Linux away from the server realm of Solaris. Last fall, he was pitching Linux on white-box PCs as a low-cost client—a sort of successor to the network computer of a few years ago.

In the current conflict where The SCO Group claims that pieces of the Unix operating system have wandered illegally into the Linux system, lots of people have said the vendor spat wont touch the end user. However, the most recent push in SCOs offensive, sending letters to 1,500 global companies warning them it believes Linux infringes on SCOs Unix intellectual property rights, proves that the assurances of Linux backers who contended end users would be above the fray were wrong.

In McNealys view, people who have decided on Linux have made a choice of lower cost in exchange for a less firm legal footing. I happen to agree with him that the prudent IT exec cannot ignore the current legal wranglings, despite encouragement to do so by those with a vested interest in Linux. Until a court decides how deeply the Unix rights of SCO reach into the open-source community—and the inevitable appeals are resolved—anyone offering a definitive view of the future is on uncertain ground.

Sun has a Unix license that appears to cover just about any aspect of the operating system. Further, the company will indemnify users from legal issues that could arise relating to the operating system. Theres no doubt McNealy believes Solaris is a better solution than Linux, and hes not above taking advantage of the FUD—fear, uncertainty and doubt—sowed by SCO to promote the operating system on which Sun has lavished so much research and development over the years.

McNealy may be ready to seize an opportunity that the dispute presents. He told me Sun is considering offering its own Linux distribution, which the companys Unix license may fully cover. If Sun could indemnify its Linux customers, it would have an unassailable advantage. I dont think you will find a similar indemnification for Linux from the other open-source vendors. It would also be in keeping with Suns offering an integrated, airtight whole—shades, once again, of the vertical integration thats Suns heritage.

For enterprise buyers, its certainly a wise approach to go slowly with any deployment until the court clears up the dispute or the vendors agree to bear any legal burden you may face. Offering a "better" Linux—one thats legally unencumbered—might just give McNealy a reason not only to hug the Penguin but also to give it a big squeeze.

Eric Lundquist can be reached at